By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), the subject of a federal corruption investigation involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, yielded to pressure from Republican leaders and announced yesterday that he will not seek election to a seventh House term this November.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) met with Ney last week to urge him to step aside, reminding him that with a son in college and a daughter nearing college age, he will need money, according to several congressional Republican aides. If he lost his House seat for the party, Boehner is said to have cautioned, Ney could not expect a lucrative career on K Street to pay those tuition bills, along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees piling up.
"Ultimately this decision came down to my family. I must think of them first, and I can no longer put them through this ordeal," Ney said in a one-paragraph statement.
Ney, 52, became the third House Republican to fall before the wide-ranging federal investigations into influence-peddling and bribery in Congress.
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) resigned from the House in June after two former aides pleaded guilty to corruption charges. And Ney has been implicated in four successive guilty pleas by lobbyists who told prosecutors they had lavished gifts on the former House Administration Committee chairman in exchange for official favors.
With a critical midterm election just 92 days away, GOP leaders are moving aggressively to cut the party off from scandal-plagued candidates and hoping the taint does not spread.
But Democrats and their allies are working just as hard to tar Republicans broadly with what they have labeled a "culture of corruption." An advertising campaign by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org has accused four other Republican House members of being in the pockets of oil companies. Recent polls show that two of those Republicans, Reps. Thelma D. Drake (Va.) and Chris Chocola (Ind.), have fallen behind their Democratic challengers.
Democrats moved quickly yesterday to tie Ney's handpicked successor to Ney and Ohio's scandal-scarred Republican governor, Bob Taft.
The race to succeed Ney will test whether a scandal "can still cause collateral damage," said Amy Walter, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Less than 100 days before the election, are the views of Ohio voters on Congress, on Republicans, already calcified, regardless of their views on the individual candidates on the ballot?"
No other congressional Republican was in as much legal jeopardy as Ney, who was labeled "Representative No. 1" in the guilty pleas of Abramoff and three co-conspirators, including longtime Ney chief of staff Neil G. Volz.
Court documents say Ney helped secure government contracts, pressed the gambling interests of Indian tribes and helped stave off minimum-wage legislation for a garment maker in the Northern Mariana Islands, all at Abramoff's behest. Ney made floor speeches and inserted helpful statements in the Congressional Record.
In exchange, Abramoff and his associates lavished Ney with a golf vacation to Scotland, a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, restaurant meals and entertainment, including tickets to a U2 concert. Ney has not been charged with any crime.
Pushed by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Ney gave up the chairmanship of the Administration Committee in January. In May, Volz confessed that he and other Abramoff associates had conspired "to unjustly enrich themselves by . . . providing, while lobbyists, a stream of things of value with the intent to influence and reward official acts."
In late June, three senior Ney aides departed en masse, while a fourth aide was ordered by federal prosecutors to turn over documents and testify before a federal grand jury on Ney's ties to Abramoff.
A major report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that month strongly suggested that Ney had lied to committee investigators, a charge now under review by the Justice Department.
Boehner, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and other House Republican leaders made it clear this spring that Ney would receive no financial backing from the party in his re-election bid.
Ney was finding it difficult to raise money in his poor, largely rural district, and Washington was drying up as a source for campaign cash. But party leaders had begun to despair that Ney would not yield to pressure to drop out of the race.
Then, last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began spending more than $1.5 million on Democrat Zack Space's campaign to unseat Ney. Had the DCCC waited two more weeks, House GOP aides said, Ohio's deadline to replace Ney's name on the ballot would have passed.
But once Boehner saw reports of the Democratic spending, he met with Ney last week and forcefully argued with his longtime Ohio colleague that it was in his family's best interest to step down.
Ney's attorneys, Mark H. Tuohey and William E. Lawler, issued a separate statement saying his decision was driven by politics and family, not by legal considerations. They restated their contention that "there is no credible basis to charge him with a violation of law."
"He recognizes that the ongoing investigation has created a tremendous amount of media speculation and has become an issue in the current race," the lawyers said. "Congressman Ney wants the voters of his district to be able to have an election focused on issues and not distractions, and for that reason, he has taken his name off the ballot."
Ney moved quickly to anoint Ohio state Sen. Joy Padgett as his successor on the ballot, a position she quickly accepted, although she could face a primary challenge. Reynolds called the district "ruby red," predicting that voters who gave President Bush 57 percent of their votes in 2004 would easily elect a Republican to succeed Ney.
Democrats' experience with the election to replace Cunningham underscores the difficulty of condemning the entire Republican Party with the sins of one member. With Cunningham in jail, Democrat Francine Busby made corruption the centerpiece of her campaign against Brian Bilbray, a Republican lobbyist and former House member. Yet she lost to Bilbray in a special-election runoff in June and was barely able to improve on Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 showing in the San Diego district.
Democratic challenger Space's entire campaign was built around Ney's legal problems, according to Walter, the political analyst. Now Space, a relative neophyte in politics, will have to retool his campaign while the Republicans rebuild theirs.
"This has allowed the Republicans to at least change the argument," said Walter, who for now will keep the race rated a tossup. "They will be fighting on more even political terrain."