By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
A former senior aide to Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) who left Congress to join Jack Abramoff's lobbying team pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to corruptly influence Ney's official actions by showering him with gifts and trips.
Neil G. Volz, 35, a Ney confidant who spent seven years on the congressman's staff, joins Abramoff and three of his other former associates in agreeing to cooperate with the government and testify against Ney in the unfolding public corruption scandal on Capitol Hill.
Ney, one of half a dozen lawmakers under scrutiny because of ties to Abramoff, has been forced to give up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee. He handily won the GOP primary in Ohio last week, and Democrats are targeting him for defeat in November.
Ney's attorneys acknowledged yesterday that he is under mounting pressure from the Justice Department, but they insisted that he has no intention of pleading guilty to crimes they said he did not commit.
Volz, who served as press secretary and later chief of staff to Ney, is a pivotal figure in the investigation because he has agreed to testify about actions that Ney performed while Volz was working in Ney's office and while Volz was on Abramoff's lobbying team.
In an interview on Fox News Channel yesterday, Ney was asked whether he would resign if indicted. "I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals," he replied. "I don't believe I'm going to be indicted."
Regarding previous plea bargains for Abramoff and two former aides to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Ney said that the three are attempting to stay out of prison and that "they've said a lot of things, as I understand, about a lot of people." He continued: "I think fact will be separated from fiction. We haven't done anything wrong. I haven't done anything wrong."
Volz appeared before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to enter a guilty plea to a single count of conspiracy, admitting that he helped deprive the public of honest services and violated a federal ban on lobbying within one year of his congressional employment. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine but could receive a substantially lower penalty depending on his cooperation in the continuing corruption investigation, attorneys in the case said.
Volz, who has been talking to prosecutors for three months, is providing information on other lawmakers and staff, according to a source close to the ongoing investigation.
The object of the conspiracy was for Volz and his other Abramoff associates "to unjustly enrich themselves by corruptly receiving, while public officials, and providing, while lobbyists, a stream of things of value with the intent to influence and reward official acts and attempting to influence members of Congress in violation of the law," according to an eight-page document filed by prosecutors.
Volz admitted in court papers that when he worked for Ney, Abramoff's lobbying team provided him with travel, golf fees, restaurant meals and entertainment, including tickets to a U2 concert. Volz did not make required disclosures of the gifts, which exceeded House limits. In exchange, Volz admitted, he induced Ney to act in ways that benefited Abramoff's clients, including sponsoring legislation, placing statements in the Congressional Record and contacting agency officials.
After joining Abramoff's lobbying team in early 2002, Volz admitted, he and the group provided Ney and members of the congressman's staff with all-expense-paid and reduced-price trips to Scotland and London in August of that year; to the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., in January 2003; to New Orleans in May 2003; and to the posh Sagamore resort at Lake George, N.Y., in August 2003. The court papers refer to Ney not by name but as "Representative #1."
"In exchange for this stream of things of value," the Justice Department said in court papers, "Volz and his co-conspirators sought and received Representative #1's agreement to perform a series of official acts."
Volz's plea agreement lists 16 acts Ney undertook for Abramoff's team, including seeking a visa for one of Abramoff's Russian clients, sponsoring the issuance of a Congressional Gold Medal to a tribal chief, and meeting with the secretary of housing and urban development to help Abramoff clients.
Ney also acted to press the gambling interests of Abramoff's tribal clients, as well as the interest of a garment manufacturer who opposed minimum-wage laws in the Northern Mariana Islands, according to the court papers.
Ney attorney Mark Tuohey denied some of the government's claims and sought to cast doubt on the motives of the five witnesses who have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Ney. The five are Abramoff; Volz; Adam Kidan, Abramoff's former partner in a casino cruise business; and Michael Scanlon and Tony C. Rudy, who were aides to DeLay, the former House majority leader.
Tuohey said Abramoff and others are making false allegations to win lighter sentences.
"The enormity of the crimes they committed has created a situation where they are singing for their supper," he said. "They are making it up. They are flat making it up."
But according to the court papers, in March 2002, Ney -- at the urging of Abramoff, Volz, Scanlon and Rudy -- agreed to sponsor legislation that would reopen a shuttered casino for a Texas Indian tribe they represented. The Tigua tribe's casino had been shut down at the urging of state officials. Abramoff secretly agitated for the closing, then signed the tribe as a client, promising he could help get the casino reopened. Ney's office said he did not follow through with the legislation.
At a meeting with Abramoff on May 10, 2001, Volz and Ney agreed to help an Israeli telecommunications company pursue a license to install cellphone antennas for the House, according to the court documents.
The company later paid Abramoff $280,000 for lobbying, according to disclosure forms. It also donated $50,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity Abramoff sometimes used to secretly pay for lobbying activities.
In the summer of 2002, Abramoff had CAF pay for the golfing trip to Scotland for Ney; David H. Safavian, then chief of staff at the General Services Administration; and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. They flew aboard a private jet and played at St. Andrews, prosecutors noted yesterday.
Safavian, who went on to become the chief White House procurement officer, will face trial this month on charges that he lied to investigators looking into the Scotland trip when he said Abramoff had no business before his agency. Abramoff sought to acquire land for a religious school from the GSA when Safavian was there, and in July 2002 Ney agreed to help, court papers said.
Ney's official report to Congress listed the purpose of the trip as a "speech to Scottish Parliamentarians," though no record exists of such a speech in the Scottish Parliament's register of official visits. Tuohey said Ney met three members of Parliament for lunch, but he declined to name them.
According to court documents, Ney also accepted many favors from Abramoff, including campaign contributions, dinners at the lobbyist's restaurant, and use of his skyboxes at MCI Center (now Verizon Center) and Camden Yards for fundraisers.
In a conference call with reporters, Tuohey said the government was wrong in saying that lobbyists improperly paid Ney's way. He said, for instance, that Ney and his staff paid their own bills at the Sagamore resort. Court papers filed by the government show that Volz, then a lobbyist, paid part of Ney's costs. Volz assured Ney that Volz would be reimbursed by Abramoff.
Foreshadowing a likely defense, Ney, who has variously blamed Abramoff, the media and liberal interests for his troubles, turned his fire toward the Justice Department yesterday, suggesting in a prepared statement that prosecutors coerced Volz into cooperating.
"While I am very saddened to see what has happened today, I also understand that Neil has been under tremendous pressure from the government," Ney said. "For a young man like Neil, it is virtually impossible to have the financial resources to adequately defend yourself against the federal government," he said.
Timothy Broas, Volz's attorney, released a statement saying that his client "deeply regrets how his actions have affected the people most important to him."