Take pity on poor Bob Ney, who insists he's just another victim of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public-relations consultant Michael Scanlon. Unlike the half-dozen Indian tribes that paid about $82 million to that scamming duo, however, the U.S. representative at least got campaign donations and a lavish trip to Scotland's legendary St. Andrew's golf course out of them. Whether he got more than that is now a matter of interest to Justice Department investigators, according to a knowledgeable source who says that the probers are seeking to discover whether Ney received any illegal donations from Abramoff.
An affable, 50-year-old conservative Republican from Ohio, Ney now portrays himself as a "dupe" of Abramoff and Scanlon, the pair of rapscallions targeted by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Justice Department for their alleged defrauding of tribes seeking increased clout.
Both Abramoff and a lawyer for Scanlon have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Yet the lobbyists' operation looks like such a breathtaking scam that it stuns even veteran observers of Washington scandals. Last November, the Indian Affairs Committee detailed how they took $4.2 million from the Tigua tribe of El Paso, Texas, while doing little to help reopen the tribe's casino with federal legislation that Ney had ostensibly championed. Abramoff and Scanlon had previously worked with the cherubic religious-right consultant Ralph Reed to prod Texas authorities to shut down the Tigua casino and another sought by a Houston-area tribe, while using at least $4 million of a rival Louisiana tribe's money. When they began the subsequent wooing of the Tigua tribe in early 2002, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!"
And so they did, even as Abramoff derided the Indians as "moronic" -- and worse -- in his e-mail messages.
The working-both-sides ploy wouldn't have been possible, though, without the phony reassurances offered to the Tigua tribe by Representative Ney as chairman of the House Administration Committee. Thanks to Abramoff, Ney received more than $30,000 in campaign donations from the Tigua tribe. In August 2002, he also was treated to a trip to Scotland costing at least $100,000 -- plus travel on a private jet -- that included the St. Andrew's golf jaunt. Along for the ride were Abramoff, Reed, and Neil Volz, a former top Ney staffer working for Abramoff. All expenses were paid by Abramoff's tribal clients, but reported by Ney as the largesse of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.
House rules forbid members from accepting trips from lobbyists. But last March the Ohio congressman said that Abramoff had fooled him, claiming the lobbyist told him that the trip was paid for by the center, which has denied any role in that junket. (The center did acknowledge sponsoring two earlier Tom DeLay trips.)
Ney first tested his "innocent victim" line after the Senate hearings on the Tigua fraud. Attacking Abramoff and Scanlon as "nefarious individuals," he proclaimed, "I, like these Indian tribes and other members of Congress, was duped by Jack Abramoff." He explained that the lobbyist had invited him "to go on a trip to Scotland, which Mr. Abramoff said would help support a charitable organization, that he founded, through meetings with Scottish Parliament officials."
That charitable outfit was the Capital Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff front. Why Ney would have to go golfing in Scotland or visit the Parliament there to assist an American-based charity remains an unsolved mystery -- as does his interest in sponsoring legislation for a Texas tribe far from his rural Ohio district.
But Abramoff and his associates had raised money for Ney from 2000 through 2003, providing the use of a luxury skybox at Washington's MCI Center to host a fund-raising event. The helpful congressman had also supported Abramoff and Adam Kidan, the lobbyist's business partner, in their effort to buy a Florida gambling cruise line. The sale went through, but the cruise line's original owner was killed gangland-style after fighting with Kidan, who has alleged ties to organized crime. Ney has since claimed that he was misled about Kidan's background, too.
According to Ney, he came to support the Tigua gaming provision because Abramoff told him that Senator Chris Dodd had agreed to include it in the unrelated Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Dodd, a co-sponsor of HAVA, was an implausible ally for the Tigua, as the Democrat was actually opposing efforts by Indian tribes to rapidly expand gambling in his home state of Connecticut. While e-mail records prove that Ney was backing the Tigua measure as early as March 2002, he said he didn't approach Dodd until the following July.
"I … personally asked Senator Dodd about this provision, and he expressed no knowledge of it," Ney later asserted. "In short, I had been misled by Jack Abramoff … . The matter was then closed from my perspective."
But Ney's various statements about his involvement with the Tigua and with Abramoff are misleadingly vague and often false. (His press spokesman declined to respond to questions from theProspect.) Tribal representatives and the Senate investigation both paint a far more disturbing picture of his continuing cooperation with the Abramoff scam.
In February 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon signed up the tribe as a client, trading in part on their close ties to DeLay and on Abramoff's claim that he would work for free to win the tribe's business later. By March, Abramoff had enlisted the Ohio congressman. As he told Scanlon in an e-mail: "Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!! He's going to do Tigua." A week later, Abramoff wrote to Texas-based lobbyist Marc Schwartz, explaining that the tribe needed to contribute to Ney's campaign and political action committees -- and tribal leaders soon forked over $32,000. By April, Scanlon indicated to Schwartz that Dodd was on board, too.
Soon, however, the congressman required still more favors. In June, Abramoff wrote to Schwartz again: "Our friend [Ney] asked if we could … cover a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff … and members in August," just like the trip DeLay had taken two years earlier. Briefing Scottish parliamentarians about an American charity doesn't seem to have been a top priority of Ney's trip (although he did actually visit the Parliament in Edinburgh for what a staffer there describes as a "brief courtesy call").
Abramoff asked the tribe to pay $100,000 toward the golf outing, but the tribe's leaders declined to do so because they'd already spent so much on payments to Scanlon (who secretly shared the loot with Abramoff). Instead, the Tigua arranged for another Houston-area tribe that would benefit from the legislative language to contribute to the trip.
Even as Dodd's election-reform bill languished in Congress during the summer, Abramoff and Scanlon reassured the Tigua's representatives that great strides were being made on their measure. Ney echoed those cheery assessments when he returned from his jaunt to Scotland and met with tribal leaders in mid-August, keeping the deception going.
The tribe was also asked to be discreet. Abramoff urged its leaders not to mention their role in funding his trip to Ney. As he wrote to Schwartz: "BN had a great time and is very grateful but is not going to mention the trip to Scotland for obvious reasons. He said he'll show his thanks in other ways, which is what we want."
At the August meeting, Ney hosted the Tigua leaders, almost bursting with pride as they were ushered into a conference room to meet such an important congressman. He exuded upbeat confidence in their provision's prospects, less thanone month after he had learned that Dodd didn't support the measure and wouldn't attach it to the HAVA bill. They were especially surprised when Ney thanked them for the trip. Early on, says Schwartz, "He thanked us for our participation and assistance in the trip. We were taken aback." Although Ney eventually claimed he was upset by then at having been duped by Abramoff, he effusively praised the lobbyist during the Tigua meeting, as Schwartz testified in the Senate hearing.
Most critically, according to Schwartz and Tigua leader Carlos Hisa, Ney told the tribal representatives that all the major players, such as Dodd, were on board for their measure.
"I've had several conversations with Dodd," Schwartz says Ney told them. "Your measure is taken care of." He urged patience, but added reassuringly, "Senator Dodd and I are committed to this."
He certainly never told the Tigua representatives that Dodd didn't support their measure and that it wouldn't be attached to HAVA. As the disenchanted Schwartz charges, "Bob Ney has got to be at the center of this. There can't be the perpetuation of a fraud of the Tigua tribe unless Bob Ney has that meeting with us."
Ney went on and on for well over an hour, schmoozing with his guests and praising free enterprise. At the end, he even walked them out so they could use the reserved members' elevator. "That last act sealed the deal," recalls Schwartz. "He was very friendly and won us over." Today, Schwartz says, "To raise the hopes of a tribal people when he knew the deal was dead leaves me no doubt that he is a heartless individual devoid of integrity."
The hopes of the Tigua evaporated in October 2002, when Abramoff called to say that Dodd had purportedly decided to renege on his support of the tribe's legislation, supposedly out of anger that his own bill to reform Connecticut tribal recognition was defeated in the Senate.
The Dodd bill provided a perfect cover story -- and in his best David Mamet tough-guy style, Abramoff called Schwartz on his cell phone to complain. "Dodd fucked us!" he said. "Ney is fuming that the bastard went back on his word. We were fucked by a Democrat!" He then urged Schwartz and the tribal officials to scramble to find other legislators who could persuade Dodd to support the measure, but those last-ditch efforts failed.
Dodd's supposed support was always a phony pipe dream that Ney and Abramoff sold to the Indians. At the Senate hearing last year on the Tigua mess, Dodd released a statement explaining that he hadn't even learned about the Tigua proposal until very late in the process. "Congressman Ney's staff," said the senator, "did approach my office during the waning hours of negotiations over the HAVA legislation to inquire whether recognition provisions for the Tigua tribe could be included in the bill. The suggestion was summarily rejected."
Nevertheless, a few days after the crushing October defeat for the tribe, Abramoff arranged for Ney to speak to the tribal council by conference call to offer his condolences for the legislative failure. Schwartz says that Ney told the council about a supposed conversation with Dodd. "I begged him to put it back in," said Ney. "I'm apologizing for us in Congress, but he went back on his word. I was so disappointed. … I almost decided to let election reform die." He vowed to continue to work on the issue. (A Ney spokesman toldThe Hill newspaper, "The congressman has no recollection of that conference call.")
A source familiar with the Justice Department probe says that federal authorities are investigating Ney's role in the scheme and asking whether Abramoff arranged payment of any illegal contributions or gratuities to him. This confirms previously published reports by Newsweek and The New York Times, which indicated that the Justice Department is seeking to determine whether Abramoff "improperly" provided contributions and gratuities to lawmakers and staffers "in exchange for legislative favors."
Looking back on the Tigua quest to restore the tribe's $60-million-a-year casino, Hisa says there was no way that he and his fellow tribal leaders could have known that they were being scammed.
"We trusted people in Washington," he says now. Evidently Bob Ney shouldn't have been one of them.
Art Levine is a Washington Monthly contributing editor who has also written for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and other national publications.
By Art Levine
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved