With a big win in the first trial to emerge from the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, the Justice Department has a bump-up in its wide-ranging investigation of the disgraced lobbyist's dealings with members of Congress. The question now: Who, if anyone, will be swept up next? Could it be Ohio Republican Bob Ney?
Using photos, government attorneys in the David Safavian case pointed out that Rep. Ney was also part of the five-day golfing trip in 2002 to Scotland's fabled St. Andrews Old Course, and to a luxury hotel in London. That trip was key in Safavian's conviction today. The former White House procurement officer was found guilty of four felony charges, including lying about the golf trip with Abramoff and obstructing an investigation.
Even Safavian's attorney, Barbara van Gelder, speaking to reporters after the verdict, acknowledged that the Justice Department's task force "will say how this was a great day in the war on corruption." But the Safavian case was "a mountain out of a molehill," she said. "Now they're going to plant the flag on top of the molehill."
The DOJ official in charge of the criminal division, Alice Fisher, said anyone questioned by federal investigators has a duty to "tell the truth." Safavian was convicted of lying and obstruction.
The photograph evidence at Safavian's trial showed two of Ney's aides, as well as Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed, on the private jet to Scotland. Reed is currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, and Ney is up for re-election in Ohio.
The star witness for the government was Neil Volz, who also was on the Scotland trip. Volz is another former aide to Ney — then an associate of Abramoff's at his lobbying firm. Volz, who was a former chief of staff to Ney, pleaded guilty in May to entering into a conspiracy with Abramoff to corrupt public officials. Volz testified that Ney was a "champion" to the lobby firm Greenberg/Traurig, a vital source who could provide insider information — the kind of information the lobbyists could not receive elsewhere.
Volz, in his plea agreement, agreed that "Representative #1", who has been identified as being Ney, accepted, among other things, an all-expenses-paid golf trip to Scotland in 2002, a trip to Lake George, N.Y. in 2003, regular food and drinks at Abramoff's restaurants and tickets to sporting events and concerts.
In exchange, according to prosecutors, Ney agreed to support and pass legislation, to support or oppose actions taken by government agencies and departments and to assist Abramoff and his clients.
Ney has not been charged, but is under investigation by federal prosecutors. His attorney's deny the allegations.
Volz testified in the Safavian trial that Ney agreed to help out with specific legislation that Abramoff and his clients wanted in order to lease General Services Administration (GSA) properties.
Volz also said that after the Scotland trip he partially filled out congressional travel expense forms for Ney. The amount paid by the congressman for the trip, Volz said, was around $3,200, which included: travel on a private jet, four nights at a resort on the St Andrew's golf course, many rounds of golf, meals and several days at a $500 a night hotel in London. Volz said "the number passed the smell test for defensibility." Though Volz testified that he thought the amount Ney agreed to claim in the expense forms was low.
Abramoff, according to e-mail exchanges presented as evidence at trial, needed assistance from Congress and Safavian in leasing property under GSA control for a religious school he wanted to open and for his tribal clients. Safavian allegedly suggested that one quick route to getting a lease for the property for the school — the former Naval Surface Weapons facility in Silver Spring, Md. — was to insert language in legislation moving through Congress.
The Election Reform Bill presented itself as a possible vehicle for a rider which could specifically authorize GSA to convey the property to Abramoff's school. Ney agreed to attach a rider to that bill.
Keeping out of ‘harm's way’
Voltz testified that in order to get the specifics for Ney to attach the rider for the property eyed by Abramoff, he needed to contact another House member — West Virginia Republican Rep. Shelly Moore Capito's chief of staff. Capito was a member of a committee with GSA oversight and could inconspicuously ask GSA for information with a single phone call by her staff to the agency. Career GSA officials balked at the phone request from Capito's staffer and asked for a letter from the congresswoman herself, asking for specifics.
Saying he "wanted to keep it a secret," Volz testified he did not want to have Capito's staff write the letter and go on the record with the GSA request. Volz said he wanted to keep Capito out of "harm's way."
Volz said he was frustrated because Congress was nearing their August recess and would not be able to get Abramoff a lease quickly on the GSA property. He said Ney then told him he could help Volz with "another legislative vehicle."
Nothing was actually added by Ney to the election legislation to help Abramoff. Though it was just a few weeks later that Abramoff, Safavian, Volz, Ney and two of his current aides, and Ralph Reed would go on the Scotland junket.
Lawyers for Ney, say that allegations the congressman accepted bribes are not true. Ney's attorneys have said the government was "sold a bill of goods" by disgraced Abramoff.
Volz, Abramoff, and two former aides to Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay — Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon — previously pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in the influence peddling investigation.
At this point, Abramoff has yet to be sentenced, with a status hearing scheduled for September. Safavian will be sentenced in October. The investigation surrounding Jack Abramoff’s connections continues.
Joel Seidman is an NBC News producer covering Washington.