Ney's Chief of Staff Wore Wire, Was Key To Boss's Conviction

Then-Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), left, and chief of staff Will Heaton were part of a golfing party to Scotland organized in 2002 by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Then-Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), left, and chief of staff Will Heaton were part of a golfing party to Scotland organized in 2002 by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (U.s. District Court Via Associated Press)
By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

When Will Heaton went to work for Rep. Robert W. Ney in 2001, he was 23 years old and still in awe of the members of Congress he had come to know years earlier as a congressional page. Within six months, the Ohio Republican promoted the fresh-faced neophyte to be the youngest chief of staff in Congress.

For the next five years, Heaton stuck by Ney, even as the House Administration Committee chairman accepted free meals at super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's downtown restaurant, sports tickets in his arena skyboxes and luxurious junkets around the world. Heaton accompanied Ney on a golf junket to Scotland with Abramoff, and he helped Ney return the favors to Abramoff.

But as Ney's political career disintegrated amid revelations of his ties to Abramoff, Heaton became disillusioned and began secretly helping an FBI task force investigating Abramoff. At first, through his attorney, Heaton handed over internal documents from Ney's office to the FBI. Then he recorded colleagues in Ney's office.

Last summer, Heaton began secretly recording his conversations with the six-term congressman, according to documents filed in court last week by the government and Heaton's lawyers. Heaton taped numerous phone calls and wore a hidden wire to a 2 1/2 -hour, face-to-face meeting with Ney that provided "exceptionally important" help to the FBI's investigation of Abramoff.

Heaton's cooperation was crucial because of constitutional obstacles involved in prosecuting a member of Congress, according to a memo by Justice Department attorney Mary Butler.

A congressional aide choosing to wear a wire on his boss is a Washington rarity, according to legal experts -- especially for an aide such as Heaton, whose entire career was spent working in Congress, mostly for Ney.

"The moment I walked into my first meeting with the Justice Department, a huge weight was lifted off my chest," Heaton wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, who is scheduled to sentence him on Thursday. Dreading the role of "tattletale on the playground," Heaton wrote, "I chose to let these grossly unprofessional and immoral actions slide for the sake of acceptance amongst my professional peers. For that, I am ashamed and deeply sorry."

Ney is serving a 30-month sentence in federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va., for performing official acts for Abramoff's lobbying clients between 2001 and 2004 in exchange for luxury vacation trips, sporting tickets, campaign contributions, expensive meals and thousands of dollars in gambling chips.

Heaton pleaded guilty in February to conspiring with Ney and Abramoff in the corruption scheme and is seeking leniency because of his cooperation. Heaton's lawyers filed a joint request with the government last week asking Huvelle to sentence him to home detention.

His decision to secretly turn on Ney last year was a major break in the case, government lawyers said. Heaton not only recorded Ney but also provided internal documents that prosecutors had been "unable to obtain from any other source."

Heaton recorded most of his conversations with Ney during a two-week period when the lawmaker was out of town, Butler said. "Heaton's substantial assistance in the investigation and prosecution of Ney was critical to Ney's decision to admit his involvement in the corrupt relationship with Abramoff," Butler wrote. "The tapes made by Heaton captured important circumstantial evidence that statements Ney had made to others about matters material to the investigation were false or intentionally misleading."

Members of Congress have been secretly recorded in congressional scandal investigations, including undercover videotaping in the ABSCAM probe in the 1980s. "It is not a routine occurrence, but it happens," said Stanley Brand, a criminal attorney who often defends politicians. "In an era where they are executing search warrants on members' offices and homes, it doesn't come as a shock."

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