By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006
In the fall of 2004, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) told Senate investigators that he was unfamiliar with a Texas Indian tribe represented by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Days later, evidence emerged that the congressman had held numerous discussions with Abramoff and the Indians about getting Congress to reopen their shuttered casino.
Ney's statements to staff members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee were included in the panel's 357-page report on tribal lobbying, released yesterday after two years of hearings and investigation. Accompanied by more than 1,000 pages of e-mails and financial ledgers, the report catalogues the now mostly familiar story of how Abramoff and his lobbying team of former congressional aides bilked half a dozen tribes out of more than $80 million.
The report includes new details about some of Abramoff's activities, including his collaboration with former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and conservative strategist Grover Norquist. The Senate report recommended that the Senate Finance Committee investigate the use of tax-exempt organizations "as extensions of for-profit lobbying operations."
Ney's comments to the panel could add to his problems with the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors have secured guilty pleas from Abramoff and three former associates implicating Ney in a string of official acts allegedly performed in exchange for favors such as a golf trip to Scotland and campaign contributions.
A spokesman for Ney said yesterday that in his interview with the Senate committee, the congressman did not initially recognize the name of the tribe.
Ney's Nov. 12, 2004, interview with committee staffers took place amid a flurry of front-page newspaper articles about how Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon had flimflammed the Tigua tribe. The two first worked secretly with anti-gambling forces to close the casino and then convinced the tribe that for $4.2 million, they could get Congress to come to its rescue.
In his interview with the committee staff, "Congressman Ney said he was not at all familiar with the Tigua" and could not recall meeting with members of the tribe, the report said.
Six days after the interview, Tigua representatives testified at a committee hearing that Abramoff had set up a lengthy meeting with Ney in his office in August 2002 as well as a conference call, and that the congressman had assured them he was working to insert language that would reopen their casino into an unrelated election reform bill. Team Abramoff and the tribe that year became Ney's biggest donors, contributing $47,500 to his campaign committees.
Ney said Abramoff had pushed for legislative language in the election reform bill. Ney asserted that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) "wanted to insert a provision into the Election Reform Bill that would benefit a tribe in Connecticut," the report said. "Congressman Ney said there was never any mention of any tribe in El Paso, Texas and no reference to any Tigua Indian tribe."
Ney's statements to the committee have been contradicted by others as well, including his former longtime chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, in admissions he made this year as part of his guilty plea to corruptly seeking to influence Ney on the Tigua issue. "Congressman Ney said that, aside from Abramoff, no one -- including Volz -- approached him about the provision that Abramoff had brought to his attention," the report said.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Ney, said yesterday that the congressman's meeting with the committee "was a voluntary meeting -- it was not conducted under oath."
The committee report said that those witnesses who were not placed under oath were reminded of "the applicability of the false statements act" and of statutes dealing with obstruction of a congressional investigation.
Walsh said the committee report relied on e-mails written by "convicted felons," Volz among them. He said that Ney had not recognized the name of the tribe when questioned about it by committee staffers, and that the report notes that sometime after the interview, his attorney found a calendar reference indicating he had had a meeting with the "Taqua."
Abramoff asked the Tigua to pay for a golf trip to Scotland for Ney in the summer of 2002, but Ney told the committee he never asked that the tribe finance the trip. He said he thought the costs were covered by a private foundation. The report said: "Congressman Ney said the purpose of the trip was to raise money for underprivileged kids in Scotland and Washington, D.C. The itinerary consisted of golfing, meeting two parliamentarians, and watching the Marine Band."
Documents attached to the report show that the wife of another member of Congress received funds from Abramoff. An event-planning firm owned by Julie Doolittle, wife of Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), was paid $66,000 from retainer fees that Abramoff's law firm collected from the Agua Caliente tribe in Southern California. The report said there is no evidence that Julie Doolittle knew the funds she was paid to plan fundraising events for Abramoff's personal charity group were coming from a lobbying client.
The report extensively details Abramoff's use of nonprofit charities and advocacy groups to advance his lobbying interests. The Indian Affairs Committee said the way such groups were used to move money around and evade tax liability raises questions about whether existing federal laws are sufficient. It urged the Senate Finance Committee to take up an investigation that it has been mulling for months.
The report traces Abramoff's business dealings with Reed, who is running for Georgia lieutenant governor, and Norquist, the prominent conservative thinker and anti-tax advocate. Both are longtime Abramoff friends who became involved in his work for Indian tribes. Reed conducted grass-roots anti-gambling campaigns against casino initiatives that would rival those of Abramoff's clients; Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform served as a "conduit," according to the committee, to move money from Abramoff's gambling clients to Reed's Christian groups while taking a small cut.
The report cited interviews with Mississippi Choctaw and Louisiana Coushatta tribal representatives. Reed "did not want to be paid directly by a tribe with gaming interests," said Choctaw official Nell Rogers. "It was our understanding that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr. Reed's political concerns."
Coushatta official William Worfel said Abramoff let the tribe know that its funding of Reed's operation had to be kept quiet. "It can't get out. He's Christian Coalition. It wouldn't look good if they're receiving money from a casino-operating tribe to oppose gaming. It would be kind of like hypocritical."
In a statement to the Associated Press yesterday, Reed said, "The report confirms that I have not been accused of any wrongdoing."
Reed said he was assured he would not be paid with money derived from gambling. "While I believed at the time that those assurances were sufficient, it is now clear with the benefit of hindsight that this is a piece of business I should have declined," Reed said.
Norquist has said his group shared an anti-tax philosophy with tribes opposed to business taxes being levied at casinos.
Rogers told the committee that the Choctaw tribe had no interest in Americans for Tax Reform other than as a conduit for its money to Reed's for-profit consulting firm, Century Strategies. She told the committee that "when we discussed needing a vehicle for doing the pass-through to Century Strategies that Jack had told me that Grover would want a management fee. And we agreed to that, frankly didn't know any other way to do it at the time."
The report and investigation have been among the most extensive by the Indian Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). If Abramoff had had his way, the investigation would never have gotten off the ground, the report said.
After the first articles about Abramoff's dealings were published in The Washington Post in 2004, the lobbyist asked his tribal clients for help in derailing McCain's probe. Choctaw representative Rogers told the committee that "Abramoff asked me if I would ask the Chief to approach Sen. McCain and suggest that each of the tribes, since they had their own police departments and courts, conduct their own internal investigations."