By James V. Grimaldi and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
As federal officials pursue a wide-ranging investigation into the activities of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his arrest on fraud charges in the purchase of a Florida casino boat company has increasingly focused attention on a little-known congressman from rural Ohio.
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) placed comments in the Congressional Record favorable to Abramoff's 2000 purchase of the casino boat company, SunCruz Casinos. Two years later, Ney sponsored legislation to reopen a casino for a Texas Indian tribe that Abramoff represented.
Ney approved a 2002 license for an Israeli telecommunications company to install antennas for the House. The company later paid Abramoff $280,000 for lobbying. It also donated $50,000 to a charity that Abramoff sometimes used to secretly pay for some of his lobbying activities.
Meanwhile, Ney accepted many favors from Abramoff, among them campaign contributions, dinners at the lobbyist's downtown restaurant, skybox fundraisers, including one at his MCI Center box, and a golfing trip to Scotland in August 2002. If statements made by Abramoff to tribal officials and in an e-mail are to be believed, Ney sought the Scotland trip after he agreed to help Abramoff's Texas Indian clients. Abramoff then arranged for his charity to pay for the trip, according to documents released by a Senate committee investigating the lobbyist.
Ney is under investigation by Florida federal prosecutors looking into Abramoff's acquisition of SunCruz, according to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Abramoff and his business partner Adam Kidan were indicted in August on fraud charges related to the purchase.
Ney declined to be interviewed. He has said his actions benefiting Abramoff had nothing to do with the favors he received. He said he was misled by Abramoff and his associates.
"I am absolutely outraged by the dishonest and duplicitous words and actions of Jack Abramoff," Ney said last year when Abramoff's statements about Ney first came up in e-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "As the testimony at both committee hearings has revealed, Jack Abramoff repeatedly lied to advance his own financial interests."
Abramoff, whose attorneys declined to comment for this article, has publicly denied that he misled Ney.
This spring, Ney hired a prominent Washington criminal defense lawyer, Mark Tuohey, to handle inquiries from the Justice Department and congressional investigators pursuing the widening scandal. Tuohey has not returned phone calls in recent weeks to discuss his client.Comments for SunCruz
A six-term congressman from rural eastern Ohio, Ney, 51, does not have a national profile. A former teacher and public safety director for his home town of Bellaire, Ney was an Ohio legislator in 1994 when he defeated the Democratic incumbent in the congressional district once represented by Wayne Hays (D).
But to members of Congress, Ney is known as the mayor of Capitol Hill. Ney is Administration Committee chairman, a powerful position that doles out budgets, equipment, offices and parking spaces to House members. These perks are used by House Republican leaders to keep their rank and file in line.
Ney became chairman of the committee thanks to his political patron, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who recently stepped down as House majority leader after he was indicted on a charge of conspiracy to violate a Texas campaign law. Shortly after Ney arrived in the House in 1994, he became a part of DeLay's Retain Our Majority Program (ROMP), a fundraising effort in which GOP colleagues donated to Republicans such as Ney in districts without a safe majority. After lines were redrawn to make Ney's district more Republican, he returned the favor, donating to other vulnerable House Republicans. That helped him earn his chairmanship in 2001, leapfrogging over a colleague with more seniority.
Ney and Abramoff, whom DeLay once described as "one of my closest and dearest friends," crossed paths as early as 1996. That year Ney took a trip to Montenegro sponsored by a foundation that had links to Abramoff, who was a lobbyist for Montenegro.
A few years later, Ney paid unusual attention to another Abramoff client, the Florida gambling boat company SunCruz, which was headquartered more than 1,000 miles outside of Ney's congressional district. Abramoff and his business partner were trying to buy the cruise ship fleet from Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, but Boulis was demanding unwelcome additional terms.
In March 2000, Ney used the Congressional Record to assail Boulis.
"On the Ohio River we have gaming interests that run clean operations and provide quality entertainment," Ney wrote. "I don't want to see the actions of one bad apple in Florida, or anywhere else to affect the business aspect of this industry or hurt any innocent casino patron in our country."
Ney's remarks were orchestrated by Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay spokesman who had just been hired to work for Abramoff at Preston Gates & Ellis LLP. Scanlon had approached Ney through his chief of staff, Neil Volz, according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Volz has repeatedly declined to be interviewed.
A few months later, Boulis agreed in principle to sell SunCruz to Abramoff and Kidan for $147.5 million. The deal closed in the fall. But Abramoff and Kidan failed to make good on a $23 million payment owed to Boulis, court records show.
When Boulis was being difficult in the negotiations, Ney again made an official statement, this time heaping praise on Kidan.
"Since my previous statement, I have come to learn that SunCruz Casino now finds itself under new ownership and, more importantly, that its new owner has a renowned reputation for honesty and integrity," Ney said in the Congressional Record on Oct. 26, 2000. "The new owner, Mr. Adam Kidan, is most well known for his successful enterprise, Dial-a-Mattress, but he is also well known as a solid individual and a respected member of his community.
"While Mr. Kidan certainly has his hands full in his efforts to clean up SunCruz's reputation, his track record as a businessman and as a citizen lead me to believe that he will easily transform SunCruz from a questionable enterprise to an upstanding establishment that the gaming community can be proud of."
But Kidan's "track record" included a string of lawsuits, judgments, liens, bankruptcies and failed businesses. His Dial-a-Mattress franchise in the District was in bankruptcy. He had filed personal bankruptcy, and he had surrendered his law license in New York after being accused of fraud. One of his mentors, Anthony Moscatiello, was alleged by law enforcement to be an accountant for New York's Gambino crime family.
Ney later said he did not know about Kidan's background.
Four months after Ney's remarks in the Congressional Record, Boulis was murdered in Fort Lauderdale. Police did not make any arrests in the case until September, when they charged four men in the slaying, including Moscatiello and a business associate of Moscatiello's whom Kidan had paid $250,000 as catering consultants.
Five weeks after the Boulis killing, SunCruz officials, including Kidan, threw a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Ney at Abramoff's skybox at the MCI Center, according to Abramoff's fundraising log.Language for Tiguas
In early 2002, Volz left his post as Ney's chief of staff to join Abramoff's lobbying team. Soon after, in March 2002, Ney agreed to sponsor legislation that would benefit the Tigua tribe of El Paso, an Abramoff and Scanlon client. They wanted Ney's help to reopen the Tiguas's casino, which the state of Texas had shut down.
"Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!!! He's going to do Tigua," Abramoff told Scanlon in a March 20, 2002, e-mail.
Six days later, Abramoff directed tribal officials to make three contributions totaling $32,000 to Ney's campaign and political action committees. A Ney spokesman recently said that money has been donated to Ohio charities.
On June 7, 2002, Abramoff wrote in an e-mail to Tigua consultant Marc Schwartz that "our friend" had "asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff."
The e-mail does not name "our friend," but Schwartz testified in the Senate last fall that it was Ney.
Abramoff wrote that "the trip will be quite expensive (we did this for another member -- you know who) 2 years ago." He was referring to an earlier Scotland golf trip that Abramoff had arranged in 2000 for DeLay. Abramoff suggested to Schwartz that the tribe send $50,000 to a charity he directed, the Capital Athletic Foundation, which would pay for the trip "as an educational mission."
Ney later stated on disclosure forms filed with the House that the August 2002 trip cost $3,200 and was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative advocacy group on whose board Abramoff served. The Washington Post reported last year that the trip was actually paid for by the Capital Athletic Foundation, which reported in tax records that it spent $150,225 on the trip.
Ney has said he was misled by Abramoff about who paid for the trip.
"In April, 2002, I was approached by Mr. Abramoff, who I believed to be a respected member of the community, and asked to go on a trip to Scotland which Mr. Abramoff said would help support a charitable organization, that he founded, through meetings he organized with Scottish Parliament officials," Ney said in a statement last November.
Ney's report to Congress listed as a purpose of the trip: "speech to Scottish Parliamentarians." However, there is no record of Ney's speech in the Scottish Parliament's register of official visits kept by the external liaison office, which is available on the Web. In addition, at the time of Ney's trip, the Scottish Parliament was out for its August recess, spokeswoman Sally Coyne said.
Ney is not the first public official who has come under scrutiny by investigators for the Scotland trip. David Safavian, then chief of staff at the General Services Administration, also went on the trip with Ney, Abramoff and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr. Safavian, who went on to become the chief White House procurement officer, was indicted this month on charges that he lied to investigators looking into the Scotland trip when he said that Abramoff had no business before the his agency.
The trip, Ney said in his statement last year, had nothing to do with legislation for the tribe.
"I want to be absolutely clear that at no point, ever, was I made even remotely aware that any Indian tribe played any role in this trip," Ney said in his statement.
Ney said he supported the Tigua legislation at Abramoff's request after the lobbyist told him the provision was supported by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who was sponsoring the election reform bill that would carry the Tigua provision.
"I then [in July 2002] personally asked Senator Dodd about this provision and he expressed no knowledge of it," Ney said. "In short, I had been misled by Jack Abramoff. I then asked Jack Abramoff why Senator Dodd was apparently not supporting it and Mr. Abramoff told me that someone had lied to him. The matter was then closed from my perspective."
However, the Tiguas say no one told them the matter was closed. Tigua consultant Schwartz later testified to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that Ney remained a strong supporter of the Tigua legislation and Abramoff long after his conversation with Dodd.
Schwartz said that in August 2002 -- a month after Ney's reported conversation with Dodd and around the time of the Scotland trip -- Abramoff arranged for Ney to meet with Tigua representatives in his office. Before the meeting, "in an e-mail to me, Abramoff mentioned that Congressman Ney didn't want his trip to Scotland brought up, as he would show his appreciation to the Tribe later," Schwartz testified.
The meeting lasted more than 90 minutes, two tribal members testified at the Senate hearing. The tribal leaders who attended the meeting were pleased and impressed with the outcome, Schwartz said.
"During that meeting, Congressman Ney was very animated about Mr. Abramoff's skill and repute as a leader in the lobbying circles," Schwartz testified. "We were told about the impending success of Mr. Abramoff's legislative plan and how much Congressman Ney wanted to help to restore the Tribe's ability to conduct gaming on their reservation."
Two months later, on Oct. 8, after the election bill came out of a House-Senate conference committee without a Tigua provision, Ney held a conference call with tribal officials and told them of his "disbelief that Dodd had gone back on his word" to support the provision, Schwartz testified. Ney also expressed his continued support for the Tiguas, tribal officials said.
Ney responded to Schwartz's testimony by saying, "I, like these Indian tribes and other members of Congress, was duped by Jack Abramoff."
Ney later said he was very angry at Abramoff and Scanlon, who he said had misled him about Dodd. Ney has called Abramoff and Scanlon's activities in the Tigua episode "nefarious."
Abramoff shot back by referring to the conference call when he spoke to the New York Times Magazine this spring. "It's crazy" for Ney to say he was duped, Abramoff said. "He was on the phone for an hour and a half!"Contract for Foxcom
In the late 1990s, members of Congress became increasingly frustrated at the lack of cell phone coverage inside the Capitol and its nearby office buildings.
The House decided to let the major wireless companies select -- and pay for -- a company to install antennas for cellular phones. In 1999, AT&T Wireless had asked LGC Wireless of San Jose to work with the House bureaucracy to put the antennas and repeaters into House buildings. The project was one of the largest of its kind, worth more than $3 million.
At the time, LGC was the world's leading provider of such equipment and had wired the headquarters of most cellular phone companies, including Nextel and AT&T. During the next year, LGC worked with the architect of the Capitol and the House Information Resources office to develop a plan.
Then Foxcom Wireless, an Israeli start-up telecommunications firm, entered the picture. Foxcom, which has since moved headquarters from Jerusalem to Vienna, Va., and been renamed MobileAccess Networks, lobbied for the job.
In early 2001, Ney took charge of the House Administration Committee, which was ultimately responsible for the antenna job. Sometime that year, exactly when is unclear, Foxcom donated $50,000 to the Capitol Athletic Foundation, Abramoff's charity. Foxcom officials have declined to be interviewed about the donation or the wireless project. A spokesman for Foxcom, now MobileAccess, referred all questions Monday to Ney's committee.
Also that same year, a decision was delayed on the antennas, which caught House staff by surprise.
"We were really surprised, given all the work we put in with LGC in designing the system," said Henry F. "Bud" Collins Jr., the senior network systems engineer for the House. "Then, all of a sudden this other company showed up. We had to go through this whole thing again."
LGC Chief Operating Officer Alex Gray wrote to Ney to complain about the "highly politicized selection process" that favored the Israeli company despite the House's "Buy American" posture. "Only Foxcom was permitted a full and fair hearing on the merits of its proposal -- essentially a 'back room' deal based on political expediency alone," Gray wrote.
Assistant House Counsel Carolyn Betz, replying on behalf of Ney, said in a letter to LGC that in the fall of 2001 the major wireless companies were receiving ballots to vote on who should get the contract.
In a letter to Betz, LGC president and chief executive Ian Sugarbroad called the election process "deeply flawed and unfair." He said each wireless company was sent a ballot and allowed to vote for LGC, Foxcom or "no preference." There were no details on the bid proposals, such as cost, security features, band capacity or critical performance metrics, Sugarbroad said.
Brian Walsh, Ney's spokesman, provided The Post redacted copies of the ballots. Three show checkmarks in a box next to Foxcom. The other three ballots are marked "no preference."
But representatives of all six companies said they voted no preference, according to interviews and documents. Five of them were interviewed by The Post, and the sixth made its preference known in a letter obtained by The Post.
Spokesmen for the companies -- Cingular, Nextel, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and Voicestream -- said they remained neutral because both LGC and Foxcom were considered capable of doing the job.
Walsh said those statements are "an absolute contradiction to the documentation."
Ney awarded the license to Foxcom on Nov. 26, 2002, Walsh said. He declined to make public a copy of documents relating to the agreement, noting that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to Congress. He noted that the work was paid for by the wireless companies and not by Congress, and he pointed out that the Senate also chose Foxcom.
LGC had no right to appeal. "This is not a traditional House procurement and, thus, House procurement policies do not apply," Betz stated in her letter to LGC.
Collins, the House engineer who has since retired, said, "It almost seemed like the cards were stacked for them."
After the contract was awarded, Foxcom listed Abramoff as its lobbyist. Over the next two years, Foxcom paid Abramoff's team $280,000.
Researcher Alice Crites and database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.