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Congressman Linked to Abramoff Is No Stranger to Lobbyists

Times Staff Writers

Congressman Bob Ney was a long way from the cracked brick streets and ragged neighborhoods of his Rust Belt hometown when he teed off on the fabled golf course at St. Andrews, Scotland, in the summer of 2002.

But there was nothing unusual about his cozy ties with the Washington lobbyist who helped arrange his tee time. The Ohio Republican has a history of close relations with lobbyists and special interests that predate golf partner Jack Abramoff.

In his quarter-century as a state legislator and U.S. representative, Ney, 51, has demonstrated a talent for turning such political connections into opportunities for gifts, travel and other forms of personal gain, records and interviews show.

So far, Ney is the only member of Congress directly linked to allegations that Abramoff traded such gifts as the golf outing for legislative favors. He is identified simply as “Representative #1" in a Jan. 3 plea agreement between Abramoff and federal prosecutors.

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Years before Ney came to Washington, however, he began accepting honorariums, in the form of personal checks, and travel from lobbyists and business interests when he served in the Ohio Legislature in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Two of his former legislative aides in Ohio became lobbyists and went to jail for bribery after Ney went to Washington.

On Capitol Hill, Ney has been tied to a string of favors from Abramoff, including the Scotland golf trip.

He also traveled to England as the guest of a convicted swindler and businessman seeking government trade concessions, reported winning $34,000 at a London casino he visited with the ex-con’s business partner, and made a personal deal with another Washington lobbyist to buy her family houseboat.

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At the same time, financial questions have swirled around Ney. He paid down more than $30,000 in credit card debts in the same year he reported his casino winnings. He has paid his wife and son about $125,000 out of his campaign funds.

And as was the case in his Ohio state legislator days, Ney’s House office became a steppingstone for future lobbyists, who in turn helped fill his campaign coffers. One of those lobbyists went to work for Abramoff and is accused in the plea agreement of participating in Abramoff’s schemes.

Ney, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, has consistently maintained that he did not violate the law. In a Jan. 12 letter to colleagues, Ney said he was “fully confident that my name will be cleared once the investigation is complete.”

“I cannot be clearer when I tell you that I have done absolutely nothing wrong,” Ney wrote.

Longtime reform advocate Fred Wertheimer of the nonpartisan Democracy 21 criticized Ney’s conduct, calling it “the culmination of a long period in Washington where pay-to-play has been an accepted way of life.”

Wertheimer singled out Ney’s expense-free trip to Scotland as “a very powerful example of what is wrong with Washington.”

There are now signs that the congressional lobbying scandal on the Potomac may also weaken Ney’s solid grip on the eastern Ohio district he has represented for 11 years.

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Ney’s rise to political prominence is a hometown success story.

The affable son of a TV cameraman, he grew up in Bellaire, an aging industrial town on the Ohio River whose shuttered schools and rusting bridges bespeak a more prosperous past.

As a young man in the late 1970s, he went off to Iran to teach English before the shah’s regime fell. Today, he maintains an active interest in Iranian affairs and is the only member of Congress fluent in Farsi.

But Ney’s ticket out of Bellaire was politics. In 1980, the 26-year-old won a seat in the state House of Representatives, where he served one term. In 1984, he became a state senator.

At the time, according to several former Ohio lawmakers and lobbyists, legislating was a clubby affair in which bills were hashed out over drinks at a bar near the statehouse.

Lobbyists routinely plied legislators with unreported honorarium checks that lawmakers used to supplement their state salaries.

Legislators often flew around the country on industry-financed trips.

“It was a well-known pay-to-play atmosphere. It was very blatant,” said Sandy Buchanan, a former statehouse lobbyist who is now executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, the state’s largest environmental group.

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“It was just kind of a given that legislators never had to pay for drinks or meals,” Buchanan said.

Ney, affectionately known as “Bobby,” fit right in, several of his contemporaries said. The garrulous young lawmaker moved easily in bipartisan circles and was a frequent visitor to the capital bars and parties where checks were dispensed.

In one year, Ney reported receiving about $10,000 in honorariums from 17 businesses and organizations, many with issues pending before the Legislature.

When Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ohio wanted to force a rival to merge with it in 1993, Ney wrote the bill two months after he received a $500 check from the company’s law firm and another from one of its consultants.

Though legal at the time, such donations were subsequently banned by the state.

Some of Ney’s closest ties to lobbyists involved former aides who left his staff to lobby for private clients.

One was fellow Bellaire native Thomas Strussion, who was convicted in two separate corruption scandals, one of which involved bribing a second former Ney aide who worked in the Ohio Insurance Department. Strussion did not respond to an interview request.

Ney always denied any improprieties, and he was never criminally charged; at least four other lawmakers were.

But his close relationship with the convicted lobbyist raised eyebrows.

“You come from a place like the one Bob comes from and you end up in power, that can be a powerful temptation,” said Jerry Krupinski, a Democrat and former state legislator who considers Ney a friend.

“I think the power might have just kind of got to him,” Krupinski said.

In 1994, Ney set his sights on Washington, the ultimate power address for politicians.

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Less partisan than some members of the Republican class of ’94 who pledged to revolutionize government, Ney largely avoided high-profile ideological battles on Capitol Hill.

He tended to his district, claiming a share of federal transportation dollars, working to save a special Appalachian aid commission and occasionally bucking his party to vote against free-trade legislation opposed by steelmakers in his district.

When he landed a chairmanship in 2001, it was on the House Administration Committee, a relatively obscure post that gave him control of congressional office budgets and the unofficial title “mayor of Capitol Hill.”

“In the pursuit of power, there may be different routes,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied Congress for 30 years. “His is a more insider track.”

In 2001, Ney wrote a popular bill to provide states with billions of dollars to modernize voting systems. He also was a prominent opponent of legislation at the time to overhaul campaign finance.

But until the Abramoff scandal broke, Ney’s news-making zenith came when he led efforts to rename House cafeteria French fries “freedom fries” to protest French criticism of Bush administration policy leading to the war in Iraq.

Otherwise, Ney largely stayed out of the headlines, slipping easily into Washington’s familiar world of lobbying and legislating.

Ney and his staff regularly enjoyed complimentary meals and drinks at Abramoff’s upscale Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant and free tickets to local concerts and sporting events, according to Abramoff’s Jan. 3 plea agreement.

The same court document cataloged numerous gifts from Abramoff to Ney or his aides beginning in 2000, including trips to the Marianas Islands in the South Pacific and the 2002 golfing trip to Scotland.

Also on the Scotland trip -- which was valued in total at “well over $100,000,” according to court documents -- was a top procurement official for the Bush administration who in September was charged with making false statements about dealings with Abramoff. Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed completed Ney’s St. Andrews golf party.

In exchange for gifts, Abramoff said, Ney agreed to introduce legislation for at least one of the lobbyist’s American Indian clients. Ney also placed statements in the congressional record supporting Abramoff’s efforts to buy a Florida gambling company. And the congressman agreed to meet with an Abramoff client from Russia seeking help getting a U.S. visa for a relative.

Ney has repeatedly denied Abramoff’s allegations, and his spokesman, Brian J. Walsh, said last week that “a number of things in the agreement are not true or never happened.”

Walsh said Ney’s legal team was working with the Justice Department to “resolve any issues.”

Abramoff was not the only Washington lobbyist with whom Ney had a close relationship.

Much as he did in Ohio, Ney repeatedly conducted business in Washington with former aides who went into lobbying.

One is Neil Volz, a former Ney chief of staff who joined Abramoff’s lobbying firm. The plea agreement said Volz, identified as “Staffer B,” lobbied Ney’s office within a year of his resignation despite federal “revolving door” laws.

Volz did not respond to a request for comment.

Another lobbyist -- who employed a former Ney aide convicted in the Ohio bribery scandal -- negotiated the sale of a family boat to Ney in 1999. The lobbyist, Afsoun Kuhnsman, ran a firm that was then representing a healthcare group with business before Congress.

Ney bought the 54-foot houseboat on the Potomac River from Kuhnsman’s father, according to U.S. Coast Guard records. She handled the transaction, her father said in an interview.

Rhodes Prince, a former lobbyist at Kuhnsman’s firm, said he had talked several times with Ney’s staff on behalf of the healthcare group. Prince said Kuhnsman also had been in regular contact with the congressman.

Kuhnsman did not respond to requests for comment. Ney lawyer William Lawler said Kuhnsman never lobbied the congressman, although he acknowledged that Ney and the lobbyist were acquainted.

Spokesman Walsh said the congressman paid about $132,000 for the 1988 Hilburn custom fly-bridge houseboat, though he declined to provide documentation. (Coast Guard documents show he financed the purchase, which included a coveted boat slip on the Potomac, with a $105,000 loan.) Ney sold the houseboat for $103,000 five years later, according to the buyer.

“The bottom line is, so what?” Walsh said. “It was a fairly rundown houseboat. I have never heard anything remotely inappropriate about the houseboat.”

In 2003, Ney was again doing business with someone working with a former aide, records show.

Cyprus-based FN Aviation (later renamed FAZ) was seeking U.S. approval to sell aircraft parts to Iran and hired Ney’s former chief of staff on the Hill, Dave DiStefano, according to federal lobbying disclosure forms.

In February 2003, the company flew Ney to London.

Ney’s host on the trip was FN partner Nigel Winfield, who, according to court records, was sentenced to jail for six months in 1982 and fined $10,000 for his involvement in an earlier scheme to swindle Elvis Presley on an aircraft lease-purchase deal.

The congressman’s companion and benefactor also was jailed for failure to pay income taxes, and New York state records show he was barred from owning racehorses in that state because of past involvement with organized crime figures.

Records in Washington show Winfield owes about $30 million in past-due taxes and penalties. Florida racing officials also barred him from owning horses in that state, citing the New York action, records show.

Winfield’s partner in FN Aviation, Fouad al Zayat, accompanied Ney to a London casino during a second trip to London in 2003. Ney has said he paid his own way.

Al Zayat, known in gambling circles as “The Fat Man,” gained notoriety in England a year earlier when he was sued by London’s Ritz Casino for bouncing checks worth about $3 million.

After the 2003 trip, Ney reported in his annual financial disclosure statements that he won $34,000 at the Ambassador’s Club, a private London casino at which Al Zayat was a member. That disclosure coincided with another change in Ney’s financial statements: He stopped reporting about $30,000 in credit card debts.

Walsh, Ney’s spokesman, has said the congressman played only two hands of cards.

Walsh would not comment on what action Ney might have taken on behalf of FN Aviation, but he denied that the congressman had intervened with any federal agency.

“He did not lobby” for FN Aviation, Walsh said.

Attorney Lawler said Ney had talked with federal officials at various times about a wide range of Iran issues, including trade sanctions, but never lobbied for FN “because he never was asked to.”

Former Ney aide DiStefano would not discuss FN Aviation’s efforts in Washington. He said that he and Ney were unaware of Winfield’s criminal record, however, and that he would have refused him as a client had he known.

Among DiStefano’s other clients who have helped Ney is coal giant Boich, a prominent Ohio company whose executives and their relatives have donated about $47,000 to Ney’s congressional campaigns. Boich also flew Ney to Barbados in 2003.

Employees of other DiStefano clients have given Ney about $10,000 since the former aide began representing them, according to federal campaign finance records.

Today, Ney is reaching back to his Ohio roots as he fights for his political life and braces for possible criminal charges.

Back home, he retains many loyal followers.

Ney has a record of bringing federal dollars to widen highways and build new rest stops. He’s a familiar sight in local parades.

“Bob has always done as much as he could for this area,” said 88-year-old William Precek, a retired factory worker from the Bellaire area who said he knew Ney’s family.

“I think most people think that if he got into anything, it must have been inadvertent.”

Ney is counting on such sentiment.

“As you know, what is reported by the media inside the Washington Beltway is often very different from what people in our own congressional districts actually think,” Ney wrote in a letter to congressional colleagues.

But it may not to be easy for Bellaire’s favorite son.

Last weekend, he was forced to give up his committee chairmanship under pressure from the House speaker.

And along Interstate 70 near Ney’s home, opponents have erected a billboard featuring the congressman’s face and a brief message. It reads: “Rep. Bob Ney. Under Investigation for Taking Bribes.”

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Levey reported from Ohio and Roche from Washington, D.C. Times researchers Mark Madden in Washington and Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.


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