A former chief of staff to then-Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) pleaded guilty yesterday to corruption charges stemming from accepting gifts, gambling chips and trips -- including an expense-paid junket to Scotland with his boss -- from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a foreign businessman.
The plea agreement by William Heaton revealed for the first time that Ney kept some of his ill-gotten gains -- $5,000 in British pounds -- in a safe in his congressional office. Heaton, who worked for Ney from 2001 until last year, admitted that he helped the congressman stash the money and periodically opened the safe at Ney's request so he could get to the cash, prosecutors said.
Ney, who resigned last year, pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to 30 months in prison.
Heaton, 28, admitted to conspiring with Ney, Abramoff and others to accept pricey vacations, meals, drinks, golf outings, tickets to entertainment events and contributions to Ney's campaign in exchange for actions by the congressman that benefited Abramoff's clients. None of those clients, including Indian tribes and foreign businessmen, lived in Ohio, the congressman's state.
Along with Ney and others, Heaton went on a now-infamous trip to golf on world-renowned courses in St. Andrews, Scotland, that cost Abramoff $160,000. He also went on junkets to New Orleans and to the Sagamore resort near Lake George, N.Y., with former Ney chief of staff and Abramoff lobbyist Neil G. Volz, who has also pleaded guilty in the bribery scandal.
Heaton, the ninth person to be convicted in the Abramoff investigation, also admitted that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of gambling chips from a foreign businessman who has been identified by Ney's attorney as Fouad al-Zayat, a high-rolling London gambler who sought Ney's help in circumventing a law barring the sale of U.S.-made airplanes and airplane parts to other countries.
A former congressional page who attended the College of William and Mary, Heaton became Ney's chief of staff at age 23, making him the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill at the time. Heaton resigned from that position last June as the federal investigation zeroed in on Ney.
Appearing in court before U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, Heaton said little other than "Yes, your honor" and "No, your honor" in response to questions. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy -- a fraction of the charges he could have faced.
Huvelle told Heaton that he faces a prison term of 18 months to two years under sentencing guidelines outlined in his plea agreement. Justice Department prosecutor John Crowell said the government plans to seek a lesser sentence in exchange for Heaton's cooperation in the investigation.
But the judge warned Heaton that she could give him a tougher sentence, something that she and a magistrate judge have done previously in the Abramoff case. After Ney's guilty plea last month to one count each of conspiracy and making false statements, Huvelle handed down a 30-month sentence, three months longer than prosecutors recommended.
Heaton also admitted falsifying his and Ney's financial disclosure forms in 2002 and 2003 to keep gifts secret. For example, Ney's forms said the Scotland trip was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research so he could meet with Scottish parliamentarians, though the Scottish Parliament was not in session, and attend a military parade.
Heaton, who had a small group of family members in the audience, surrendered his passport. At his lawyer's request, the judge agreed to let him travel with prior notice to see family in New York and North Carolina pending sentencing.
"No corrupt public servant is exempt from FBI scrutiny," FBI Assistant Director Chip Burrus said. "We will continue to pursue those like Will Heaton who sell their integrity at the public's expense."
Also convicted in the scandal were Abramoff, who along with business partner Adam Kidan is in prison for a related fraud case in Florida; Volz, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy; Tony Rudy, a lobbyist and onetime aide to former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.); David H. Safavian, a former chief of staff for the General Services Administration, who is appealing his conviction for lying about going on the Scotland trip; Michael Scanlon, a former Abramoff business partner and DeLay aide; and Roger G. Stillwell, a former Interior Department official, who was sentenced to two years' probation.