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'Operation Open Doors'

Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A26

WHEN HIS NAME surfaced in connection with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation of lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) presented himself as another victim of the rapacious duo, who collected $66 million from casino-operating Indian tribes that sought their help to stay in business. Like the tribes, Mr. Ney said, he was duped by Mr. Abramoff when the lobbyist sought his help in getting a tribal casino reopened.

Maybe so. But Mr. Ney also pocketed large campaign contributions from the Tigua tribe of El Paso -- contributions steered his way by Mr. Abramoff -- and then pushed the tribe's cause in Congress. And he continued to embrace that cause well beyond the time he claims to have lost interest.

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According to e-mails uncovered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mr. Abramoff enlisted Mr. Ney in the Tigua cause in March 2002. Mr. Ney was the lead House sponsor of a pending election reform bill, and the plan was to slip a casino-reopening provision into that unrelated measure. "Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!!! He's going to do Tigua," Mr. Abramoff e-mailed Mr. Scanlon on March 20. Six days later Mr. Abramoff told the tribe it needed to come up with contributions for the congressman.

The tribe anted up, becoming by far Mr. Ney's biggest contributor that election cycle. It gave $3,000 to his campaign committee ($2,000 more than permitted at the time), $5,000 to his leadership political action committee and $25,000 to the PAC's "soft money" arm, which was set up just in time to take the Tiguas' check. The soft-money PAC was established on April 30, 2002, the day after the Tiguas' $5,000 check was deposited in the federal PAC, and the $25,000 from the tribe was, other than a lone $1,000 donation, the only contribution the soft-money arm received. Meanwhile, the two lobbyists contributed $5,500 to Mr. Ney's campaign and PAC, and other tribes they represented gave $9,000. Total take: $47,500.

In addition, the week that Mr. Ney's involvement in the Tigua matter was revealed at a Senate hearing, his campaign belatedly amended its campaign finance reports for 2002 and 2003 to reflect in-kind contributions for events at MCI Center, where Mr. Abramoff had a box. The contributions, which totaled $1,470, came from Neil Volz, a former top Ney staffer who had gone to work with Mr. Abramoff at his law firm. Did the money talk? Mr. Ney acknowledges that he raised the Tigua issue with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who was leading the election reform bill in the Senate. Mr. Ney says he acted because Mr. Abramoff had assured him that Mr. Dodd wanted the provision in the bill. When Mr. Dodd said he knew nothing of it, Mr. Ney says he felt betrayed and dropped the issue. "The matter was then closed from my perspective," Mr. Ney said in a statement.

If so, why, the following month, did Mr. Ney meet with Tigua representatives in his Capitol office, pledging to help them, according to those who attended, and heaping praise on Mr. Abramoff? "So he was giving you assurances that he was on board, he was working to solve this problem for you?" Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) asked Marc Schwartz, a Tigua consultant, at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing last month. "Absolutely," Mr. Schwartz replied.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ney's staff continued to try to get the provision inserted in the election reform bill, according to a statement from Mr. Dodd. Ney staff members approached his office "during the waning hours of negotiations over the . . . legislation to inquire whether recognition provisions for the Tigua tribe could be included in the bill," the statement says. "The suggestion was summarily rejected." After the measure passed without the Tigua provision, Mr. Ney held a conference call with the tribal council. According to Mr. Schwartz, he "told them about his disbelief that Senator Dodd had gone back on his word. He further reported that he would continue to work on the issue and believed that the tribe was entitled to their gaming operation."

Mr. Ney's spokesman, Brian Walsh, says that Mr. Ney has a different recollection of his conversations with the tribe and that his support for their provision had nothing to do with the contributions. "Not at any point ever was the issue of any donations brought up," he said. But what explains Mr. Ney's devotion to the Tigua cause? The tribe isn't from Mr. Ney's state, let alone his district. The committees he sits on have nothing to do with the subject. (In fact, he chairs the committee that oversees campaign finance laws.) Early on, Messrs. Abramoff and Scanlon told the Tigua that they would have to pay $300,000 in campaign contributions to underwrite what the lobbyists called "Operation Open Doors." At least in Mr. Ney's case the operation may have been a success.

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