By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Former Ohio Republican congressman Robert W. Ney was sentenced to 30 months in prison yesterday, becoming the first elected official headed for jail because of corrupt dealings with now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle handed down a tougher sentence than the 27 months recommended by prosecutors, telling Ney that, "as a member of Congress, you had the responsibility above all else to set an example and to uphold the law."
Ney became a symbol of the corruption that aroused voters and helped sweep into Congress a new Democratic majority promising ethics reform.
The former chairman of the House Administration Committee admitted that he performed official acts for Abramoff's lobbying clients between 2001 and 2004, receiving in exchange luxury vacation trips, skybox seats at sporting events, campaign contributions and expensive meals. Ney also admitted receiving tens of thousands of dollars in gambling chips from a businessman who sought his help with the State Department.
In the continuing investigation, Ney and seven others have pleaded guilty or have been convicted, and several are cooperating as witnesses. In addition to the government's chief witness, Abramoff, they include Ney's former chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, and two other Capitol Hill staffers who once worked for former congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). All three were part of Abramoff's lobbying team.
More charges are expected. Prosecutors recently notified a former deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles, that he is a target, sources familiar with the probe said.
Ney said yesterday that he regretted his actions and was sorry for disappointing his family and voters.
"I will continue to take full responsibility for my actions and battle the demons of addiction," he said, referring to the alcohol problem for which he has sought treatment.
In a letter to the judge, Matthew D. Parker, a friend and former aide, said that Ney began to drink more heavily in 2004 when he first came under federal scrutiny. "Bob was a functioning alcoholic who could rarely make it through the day without drinking and would often begin drinking beers as early as 7:30 a.m.," Parker said. But the judge rejected his plea for leniency.
"Whether or not you've served your constituents well, on some level you have seriously betrayed the public's trust and abused your power as a congressman," Huvelle told Ney. "You have a long way to go to make amends for what's happened."
Ney pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and making false statements. Huvelle agreed to a request that he serve his term in a federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va., where he can receive alcohol treatment. She ordered him to pay a $6,000 fine, remain on probation for two years after his release, and participate in community service.
"Today's sentence makes it clear that our government is not for sale," Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in a statement. "Former Congressman Ney now faces 30 months in prison for abusing his position of trust as a representative of the American people. The Justice Department will continue to pursue and prosecute public officials who compromise the integrity of elected office for private benefit."
The gifts Ney accepted from Abramoff included a golfing trip to Scotland and other travel that prosecutors valued at more than $170,000. In return, Ney sought to insert four amendments to benefit Abramoff's clients into a 2002 election reform bill. Ney also admitted helping another Abramoff client win a multimillion-dollar contract to provide wireless communication services to the U.S. Capitol.
The congressman twice inserted comments in the Congressional Record aimed at bolstering a bid by Abramoff to take ownership of a Florida casino company.
Along with acknowledging his dealings with Abramoff, Ney admitted accepting free air travel, luxury accommodations and thousands of dollars worth of gambling chips in 2003 from a foreign businessman who has been identified by Ney attorney Mark H. Tuohey as Fouad al-Zayat, a high-rolling London gambler. Zayat has been described in the media as an arms middleman. He sought Ney's help in getting a visa and an exemption to a U.S. law that bars the sale of airplane parts to other countries.
Ney and his staff also offered to aid Abramoff's clients in the summer of 2003 as Ney prepared for a trip to Russia. Abramoff's team got the congressman to intervene with the U.S. Consulate in Moscow to help resolve a passport issue for the daughter of an Abramoff client. Volz, then working for Abramoff, later paid for Ney's stay at a luxury hotel in Lake George, N.Y.
Huvelle is the second judge to show little sympathy for federal officials convicted in the scandal.
Earlier this month, Magistrate Judge Alan Kay issued a stiffer sentence than the one worked out by prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case of Roger G. Stillwell. An Interior Department employee, Stillwell gave Abramoff copies of internal agency documents and accepted football tickets from him. Prosecutors had sought six months of probation, but Kay extended it to two years, saying there is "no such thing as a free lunch, particularly as provided by lobbyists."
In response to what Democrats have dubbed the "culture of corruption," the House and the Senate this month passed ethics packages that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists, and force them to put their names on the "earmarks" that they tuck into bills, often benefiting lobbyists' clients. Also pending is a measure that would take away congressional pensions from members convicted of corruption, but it would not be retroactive. Ney could collect up to $33,000 a year by age 62.