WASHINGTON — In 2003, Rep. Bob Ney was in the news for helping lead the push to rename the French fries in the House cafeterias "freedom fries" to protest France's refusal to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Now, the Ohio Republican is in the spotlight as "Representative #1" -- the unnamed lawmaker in federal court documents released Tuesday who allegedly received favors from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for supporting legislation beneficial to one of Abramoff's clients. The documents were unveiled as part of the guilty plea Abramoff entered to several charges stemming from his lobbying activity.
Ney has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing; in a statement Tuesday, he said: "At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities."
But Abramoff's agreement to cooperate with federal investigators as part of his guilty plea raised the prospect that Ney could face indictment. At the least, the Abramoff scandal has cast a cloud over Ney's lengthy political career.
Ironically, Ney won his first elective office by defeating a Democrat who had been tainted by scandal -- Wayne Hays.
Hays was serving in the Ohio Legislature when Ney upset him in 1980. Four years earlier, Hays had quit his seat in the U.S. House after Elizabeth Ray, who was on the payroll of the committee he headed, said she was being paid to serve as his mistress. At the time. Ray famously said she could not type or "even answer the phone."
Ney, 51, won his House seat in 1994, when a GOP landslide gave Republicans control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.
In 2001, he became head of the Committee on House Administration, a position that deals with chores that capture little public attention but are important to colleagues, such as overseeing parking on Capitol Hill.
It was in his role as the panel's chairman that he ordered the name change for French fries.
He also helped write legislation that authorized more than $3.8 billion in federal aid to help state and local officials improve their voting systems -- a bill passed by Congress after the Florida vote-counting debacle in the 2000 election.
Born in West Virginia, Ney graduated from Ohio State University in the mid-1970s. He spent 1978 in Iran teaching English and is the only House member who speaks fluent Farsi.
During the last year, Ney has uncharacteristically broken with the GOP's House leadership on some key issues.
He was one of nine Republicans in the chamber to vote against a recently passed budget-cutting bill because of concern about its effect on his congressional district's steel industry and cuts to Medicaid. He also opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and has been among a handful of Republicans working against reauthorization of the Patriot Act because of concerns about its effect on civil liberties.
Ney's district in eastern Ohio is heavily rural and picked up more Republican voters when it was redrawn after the 2000 census. He won reelection in 2004 with 66% of the vote.
Ney's spokesman, Brian Walsh, said Tuesday he expected the district's constituents to give the lawmaker the benefit of the doubt as the ethics scandal continued to unfold.
"I think many people in Washington these days presume someone to be guilty until proven innocent," Walsh said. "I think that's different in middle America."
Three Democrats already are vying for the right to oppose Ney in November. The campaign manager for one of the Democrats, Joe Sulzer, said the ethical allegations swirling around Ney were not yet "central in the way it is in D.C. right now" for most voters in the district.
But the Sulzer aide, Joe Abbey, added that he believed the Abramoff plea would "advance the issue tenfold" and sharpen questions of whether Ney was more focused on helping Abramoff than his constituents.
One Democratic official in Ney's district cautioned against counting out the lawmaker.
Mark Thomas, a Belmont County commissioner, noted that Ney helped secure more than $20 million for the area in a recently passed highway bill.
"I think the people in this district are taking the position that until he has been accused of whatever he may be accused of, and the facts come out, and he has an opportunity to respond," Thomas said, "we're going to be behind him as a congressman."
\o7Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report.