WASHINGTON — Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff put him at the center of a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation, announced Monday that he was ending his campaign for reelection.
"Ultimately this decision came down to my family," the six-term congressman said in a statement posted on his campaign website. "I must think of them first, and I can no longer put them through this ordeal."
Ney's withdrawal ends months of speculation about the man who more than any other lawmaker is linked to the web of campaign contributions, lavish favors and legislative payoffs that has been exposed in the Abramoff scandal.
Referred to infamously as "Representative #1" in Abramoff's January plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Ney allegedly accepted a raft of favors -- including an all-expenses-paid golfing trip to Scotland -- in exchange for helping Abramoff and his clients.
Ney repeatedly has declared his innocence, and had vowed not to let the scandal derail his reelection bid.
But he was under increasing pressure as his electoral prospects dimmed. He was a prime target for Democrats, who need to pick up 15 seats in November to take control of the House of Representatives.
His decision to quit the race added more uncertainty to highly competitive congressional elections taking place in the shadow of scandals that have already driven former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from office.
Republicans in Ohio's 18th Congressional District, which stretches through the eastern part of the state, now must select a new candidate before the Nov. 7 election.
Ney, 52, is the only member of Congress directly linked to allegations that Abramoff traded gifts for legislative favors, though other legislators have been tarnished by their association with the convicted power-broker.
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is one of them. Burns, who accepted contributions and expense-paid trips for his staff from the lobbyist, is now locked in a fierce reelection fight.
In California, Reps. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who all had ties to Abramoff, are considered safer, in part because their districts are solidly Republican.
According to Abramoff's plea agreement, Ney was the lobbyist's guest at the fabled golf course at St. Andrews, Scotland. Ney and his staff regularly received complimentary meals and drinks at Abramoff's upscale Washington restaurant and free tickets to concerts and sporting events, the agreement said.
In exchange, Abramoff said, Ney introduced legislation for at least one of the lobbyist's Native American clients and placed statements in the Congressional Record supporting Abramoff's efforts to buy a Florida gambling company.
The allegations forced Ney in January to give up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee, a position that gained him some notoriety when he ordered the House cafeteria to change "French fries" to "freedom fries" on its menu after France refused to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In May, Ney's former chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, who went to work with Abramoff, pleaded guilty to corruption charges. In his plea agreement, he admitted plying Ney with favors.
Through the summer, Ney faced an intensifying challenge from Democratic candidate Zack Space, a small-town municipal attorney and business owner who has been pummeling Ney for his connections to Abramoff.
Even Ney's own polling showed the legislator, whose skill at tending to his constituents was legendary, hanging onto only a slim lead.
On Monday, Republican leaders pinned their hopes on Joy Padgett, a state senator who told the Associated Press that Ney asked her to run in his place.
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he was confident the GOP would hold onto the district, where 57% of the voters supported President Bush in the 2004 election.
Amy Walter, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the party's task would almost certainly be easier without Ney.
"Zack Space's biggest asset in this race was Bob Ney," she said, adding that Democrats' chances may hinge on whether Space can continue to make the race a referendum on Ney.