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The Nation

Congressman Linked to Abramoff Is No Stranger to Lobbyists

January 22, 2006|Noam N. Levey and Walter F. Roche Jr. | Times Staff Writers

BELLAIRE, Ohio — Congressman Bob Ney was a long way from the cracked brick streets and ragged neighborhoods of his Rust Belt hometown when he teed off on the fabled golf course at St. Andrews, Scotland, in the summer of 2002.

But there was nothing unusual about his cozy ties with the Washington lobbyist who helped arrange his tee time. The Ohio Republican has a history of close relations with lobbyists and special interests that predate golf partner Jack Abramoff.

In his quarter-century as a state legislator and U.S. representative, Ney, 51, has demonstrated a talent for turning such political connections into opportunities for gifts, travel and other forms of personal gain, records and interviews show.

So far, Ney is the only member of Congress directly linked to allegations that Abramoff traded such gifts as the golf outing for legislative favors. He is identified simply as "Representative #1" in a Jan. 3 plea agreement between Abramoff and federal prosecutors.

Years before Ney came to Washington, however, he began accepting honorariums, in the form of personal checks, and travel from lobbyists and business interests when he served in the Ohio Legislature in the 1980s and '90s.

Two of his former legislative aides in Ohio became lobbyists and went to jail for bribery after Ney went to Washington.

On Capitol Hill, Ney has been tied to a string of favors from Abramoff, including the Scotland golf trip.

He also traveled to England as the guest of a convicted swindler and businessman seeking government trade concessions, reported winning $34,000 at a London casino he visited with the ex-con's business partner, and made a personal deal with another Washington lobbyist to buy her family houseboat.

At the same time, financial questions have swirled around Ney. He paid down more than $30,000 in credit card debts in the same year he reported his casino winnings. He has paid his wife and son about $125,000 out of his campaign funds.

And as was the case in his Ohio state legislator days, Ney's House office became a steppingstone for future lobbyists, who in turn helped fill his campaign coffers. One of those lobbyists went to work for Abramoff and is accused in the plea agreement of participating in Abramoff's schemes.

Ney, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, has consistently maintained that he did not violate the law. In a Jan. 12 letter to colleagues, Ney said he was "fully confident that my name will be cleared once the investigation is complete."

"I cannot be clearer when I tell you that I have done absolutely nothing wrong," Ney wrote.

Longtime reform advocate Fred Wertheimer of the nonpartisan Democracy 21 criticized Ney's conduct, calling it "the culmination of a long period in Washington where pay-to-play has been an accepted way of life."

Wertheimer singled out Ney's expense-free trip to Scotland as "a very powerful example of what is wrong with Washington."

There are now signs that the congressional lobbying scandal on the Potomac may also weaken Ney's solid grip on the eastern Ohio district he has represented for 11 years.

*

Ney's rise to political prominence is a hometown success story.

The affable son of a TV cameraman, he grew up in Bellaire, an aging industrial town on the Ohio River whose shuttered schools and rusting bridges bespeak a more prosperous past.

As a young man in the late 1970s, he went off to Iran to teach English before the shah's regime fell. Today, he maintains an active interest in Iranian affairs and is the only member of Congress fluent in Farsi.

But Ney's ticket out of Bellaire was politics. In 1980, the 26-year-old won a seat in the state House of Representatives, where he served one term. In 1984, he became a state senator.

At the time, according to several former Ohio lawmakers and lobbyists, legislating was a clubby affair in which bills were hashed out over drinks at a bar near the statehouse.

Lobbyists routinely plied legislators with unreported honorarium checks that lawmakers used to supplement their state salaries.

Legislators often flew around the country on industry-financed trips.

"It was a well-known pay-to-play atmosphere. It was very blatant," said Sandy Buchanan, a former statehouse lobbyist who is now executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, the state's largest environmental group.

"It was just kind of a given that legislators never had to pay for drinks or meals," Buchanan said.

Ney, affectionately known as "Bobby," fit right in, several of his contemporaries said. The garrulous young lawmaker moved easily in bipartisan circles and was a frequent visitor to the capital bars and parties where checks were dispensed.

In one year, Ney reported receiving about $10,000 in honorariums from 17 businesses and organizations, many with issues pending before the Legislature.

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