Federal prosecutors signaled this week that they have decided to pursue a wide range of allegations about dealings between Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, rather than bringing a narrowly focused bribery case against the congressman.
Ney faces a primary challenge in his eastern Ohio district Tuesday, as his ties to Abramoff have become national news. It is the first time since his 1994 election to Congress that Ney has had to compete for his party's nomination.
Ney has been under investigation by federal authorities in Florida and the District for actions that helped Abramoff and two partners buy a Fort Lauderdale-based casino cruise line. The deal that Ney promoted in the Congressional Record hinged on the Abramoff group's creation of a counterfeit $23 million wire transfer.
The Miami U.S. Attorney's office has vied with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section over who would have primary jurisdiction in the Ney investigation. Last month, the Justice Department decided that any case would be brought in the District. Under the statute of limitations, Thursday was the deadline for bringing bribery charges against Ney focused solely on his actions related to the Florida casino boat transaction.
Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, said he has been in talks with Justice Department officials and expects to know within a month or two whether Ney will face criminal charges. He said the department asked for another extension of the statute of limitations in recent days, but this time Ney declined.
"We're going through the facts with the government. I don't think there's a crime here," Tuohey said. "Nothing's decided."
Witnesses for the prosecution
Court papers filed in recent months show that prosecutors have lined up at least four cooperating witnesses against the Ohio congressman: Abramoff, former congressional aides Michael Scanlon and Tony C. Rudy and businessman Adam Kidan. All have pleaded guilty to various conspiracy, fraud or public corruption charges.
The court filings that accompanied the plea agreements of Abramoff, Scanlon and Rudy accused Ney of accepting "a stream of things of value" in exchange for official actions.
Prosecutors signaled their intentions with Ney by identifying him as "Representative #1" in pleadings filed with the court. In October, Ney was formally notified that he was under criminal investigation, and at the prosecutors' request he agreed to extend the five-year statute of limitations for six months while they investigated possible bribery charges.
Ney's actions involving the cruise line could still expose him to criminal liability if the government brings a conspiracy case against him, legal analysts said. In that instance, the statute of limitations is pegged to the date of the last alleged criminal act in a chain, not the first.
Helping lobbyist on the Hill
Ney's involvement with the cruise line took place in 2000, when Abramoff and partners Kidan and Ben Waldman were in difficult negotiations to buy the SunCruz Casinos from Fort Lauderdale businessman Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis. Ney placed comments in the Congressional Record that year that first put pressure on Boulis to sell to the Abramoff group, and later praised the new owners as Boulis was complaining he had been cheated in the sale.
Boulis was murdered in a gangland-style hit in early 2001. Three men with ties to Kidan and to the Gambino crime family face murder charges in the slaying.
Ney was involved with Abramoff and his lobbying team on other issues under federal investigation. In 2002, Ney sponsored legislation at the team's request to reopen a casino for a Texas Indian tribe that Abramoff represented, and approved a 2002 license for an Abramoff client to wire the House of Representatives for mobile phone service.
At the same time, Ney accepted many favors from Abramoff, among them campaign contributions, dinners at the lobbyist's downtown restaurant, skybox fundraisers including one at his then-MCI Center box the month after Boulis's murder, and a lavish golf junket to Scotland in August 2002.
Ney was directly implicated by three of the four who have recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges: Abramoff, Scanlon and Rudy. Kidan's attorney said his client also would testify against Ney if asked.
Facing stiff re-election fight
The allegations against Ney have taken a toll on his political career and his prospects for reelection.
Ney will face off against financial analyst James Harris in next week's Republican primary in Ohio's 18th District. Despite his travails, Ney has won the uniform backing of district Republican officials and is favored to win.
The November general election may be more difficult, as internal Republican polling conducted earlier this year showed Ney trailing both Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer and lawyer Zack Space -- the two Democrats given the best chance of winning their party's nod on Tuesday.
Democrats acknowledge privately that the only way they can win in this Republican-leaning district, which President Bush carried with 57 percent in 2004, is for the election to be a referendum on Ney. He has vowed to remain in the race even if he is indicted.