Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and his legal team defiantly fought back against Monday’s plea agreement by his former chief of staff, accusing the Justice Department of basing sundry new allegations against the lawmaker on former lobbyists who were “singing for their supper.”
Faced with the most legally and politically perilous allegations against the lawmaker to date, Ney’s lawyers argued that the Justice Department’s plea agreement with Neil Volz, a top Ney aide from 1995 to 2002, was filled with factual mistakes and misinterpretations of his official actions.
“If the facts are followed in this case, there won’t be and shouldn’t be an indictment of Congressman Ney,” said Bill Lawler, one of two Ney lawyers who convened a conference call with reporters Monday.
The session came four hours after Volz pleaded guilty in federal court and officially admitted to “corruptly influencing” Ney and his staff through criminal acts, including new charges of taking reduced-cost trips, one to New Orleans and one to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes win the national collegiate football championship in Arizona in 2003.
Ney and his lawyers said the lawmaker has no plans to retire — unlike Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who announced last month that he would retire, just one week after his former deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty in the Jack Abramoff probe — and said he would vigorously defend himself against any charges. Earlier this year, Ney stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee at the urging of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) because of the media and partisan firestorm the probe provoked.
Ney’s actions had previously been identified in court filings for the plea agreements of ex-lobbyist Abramoff and two former aides to DeLay. But Volz’s cooperation is considered particularly critical to the prosecution’s case because he served as Ney’s closest political confidant for years on Capitol Hill and remained extraordinarily close to the lawmaker after he went to work as a lobbyist with Abramoff in 2002.
In official statements and in the conference call, Ney’s lawyers, his communications director and the lawmaker himself suggested that Volz pleaded guilty solely because he did not have the financial means to fight the allegations on his own and gave in to prosecutors by becoming a witness against Ney.
“Neil has been under tremendous pressure from the government. For a young man like Neil, it is virtually impossible to have the financial resources to adequately defend yourself against the federal government,” Ney said in a two-sentence statement.
“There is a lot of coercion that goes on,” Mark Tuohey, a Ney lawyer, said of plea agreement discussions conducted by the Justice Department.
In flipping Volz, however, prosecutors unveiled their most detailed account of what charges against Ney may ultimately look like regarding his relationship with Abramoff’s lobbying teams at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, and then Greenberg Traurig.
Beginning in early 2000, according to Volz, Abramoff’s lobbying team began showering him and Ney with “things of value,” such as the January 2000 trip to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands that Volz attended along with Abramoff’s employees, as well as tickets to sporting events and concerts in his luxury suite at the MCI Center, Camden Yards and FedEx Field.
When he went to work for Abramoff, Volz became the point person in providing gifts to Ney and his staff, taking part in an August 2002 trip to St. Andrews, Scotland, that Abramoff arranged for Ney, two of his staffers, conservative political consultant Ralph Reed and indicted former government procurement officer David Safavian.
According to documents released earlier by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the charter jet to fly the group to Scotland cost $91,000 and the group rung up an additional $75,000 in costs on the trip, which was financed by Abramoff’s lobbying clients via payments funneled through a charity established by the lobbyist.
The trip was taken at a time when Ney was helping Abramoff and Volz with a provision in an election reform bill that would have given federal recognition to one of Abramoff’s tribal clients. The Tigua Tribe of El Paso, Texas, had its casino shut down by state officials in early 2002, thanks to Abramoff. Abramoff then convinced the tribe to pay him millions of dollars to get it reopened.
The Volz plea also repeats accusations that Ney and his staff received “regular meals and drinks” at Abramoff’s former restaurant, Signatures. Monday’s court documents also included new gift allegations, including the trips to Arizona and New Orleans as well as one to Lake George, N.Y., in August 2003.
Tuohey and Lawler said Monday that they had been in repeated contact with the Justice Department regarding Ney, who recently escaped indictment on a different piece of the Abramoff probe, due to expiration of the statute of limitations last month. In some cases, the lawyers have been trying to produce receipts to prove that meals and travel were paid for and not gratis on behalf of Volz or Abramoff.
In mounting its public defense Monday, the Ney legal team spelled out the plan of attack if Ney is indicted: that the charges are based on bad facts and, in the instances where Ney did accept gifts from Abramoff, the official actions he took that benefited the lobbyist’s clients were done on the merits.
In a bribery or illegal gratuity case against Ney, the Justice Department will have to prove not just that he accepted thousands of dollars worth of gifts from Abramoff and that actions were taken that benefited his clients, but also that those gifts were the primary motivating factor behind Ney’s official actions.
Attempting to refute an allegation that Ney brought up tribal housing issues on behalf of Abramoff in a meeting with then-Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, Lawler said that issue was done because of his concern for the issue.
“Does he care about Indian housing? Yes. Does he care about it because Jack Abramoff gave him something? No,” Lawler said.
“There was never an occasion when Congressman Ney took an official action” because of Abramoff’s gratuities to him, Tuohey said.
In their most detailed public explanations to date, Tuohey and Lawler also took on some of the long-simmering allegations against Ney.
The trip to Scotland, for instance, was not a golf junket, they said, but was actually supposed to be a fundraising event that would benefit Scottish and American children, at which Ney’s presence would help with the amount raised, they said.
Ney was “not particularly interested in the trip and he’s not really a golfer at all,” Tuohey said. There was a dinner meeting with members of Scottish Parliament and one with U.S. military officials there, as well as a planned meeting with members of the Conservative Party in London that was eventually cancelled.
“They were explicitly told this trip was an official business trip,” Tuohey added.
Tuohey and Lawler said that Ney paid his own way on the trips to Arizona, New Orleans and Lake George, adding that at least with the Lake George trip, it was viewed as two friends vacationing together. “It was purely personal in nature,” Lawler said.
The legal team acknowledged that Ney may have accepted some meals and drinks from Abramoff or his lobbyists, but Tuohey portrayed those “very infrequent” occasions as small personal gestures that had nothing to do with Ney’s actions as a lawmaker.
The main thrust of the Ney defense is that Abramoff, in his effort to secure the lightest possible prison sentence, has been overselling his influence with Ney to prosecutors who are hungry to ring up corruption convictions against Members of Congress.
“I think the government’s been sold a bill of goods by Mr. Abramoff,” Tuohey said, later adding former DeLay aides Mike Scanlon and Tony Rudy into that allegation. “They’re singing for their supper.”
Ney told Fox News that Abramoff, Rudy and Scanlon are offering evidence against him because “they are attempting to stay out of prison.”
But any testimony from Volz against Ney would be particularly damaging because of his close relationship with the lawmaker. Notably, neither Ney in his statement nor his lawyers attacked Volz’s credibility Monday.
And Volz’s plea agreement, along with other court filings unveiled Monday, accuses Ney of taking a long series of actions to benefit Abramoff in exchange for a “stream of things of value.”
Those actions include meeting with and talking to Tigua tribal leaders several times while Ney was trying to reopen their casino. Volz has now testified that he served as a middle man between Abramoff and Ney for some of those discussions, relaying information that the lobbyist wanted the lawmaker to tell his client because their deal was falling apart as the tribal issue was being rejected by Senate negotiators.
In April 2003, Ney co-sponsored legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to an Abramoff client, Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws. Martin was one of Abramoff’s most important clients, according to the Justice Department.