William Heaton, the former chief of staff to convicted Ohio republican congressman Bob Ney pleaded guilty after being charged Monday with a single felony count of conspiracy in the ongoing Washington influence peddling probe of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Heaton, who is 28 years old, worked for Ney until July. When asked how we would plead, he told U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle, "guilty your honor."
Ney was sentenced in January to 30 months in prison and fined $6,000 after admitting that he traded official actions for disgraced lobbyist Abramoff for expensive trips, sports tickets, meals and campaign donations.
Ney was aided in his dealings with Abramoff by a key staffer, Heaton, according to the criminal information filed in court today.
Abramoff Russian connection
Prosecutors wrote that Heaton "enjoyed and coordinated" many of the gifts Ney received. He traveled with the congressman on a golf junket to Scotland; trips Lake George, N.Y.; and New Orleans. Heaton also took thousands of dollars' worth of gambling chips during an trip to London from a foreign businessman, and helped to conceal gambling winnings from U.S. customs officials for Ney when they returned to the U.S.
Heaton worked for Ney from September 2001 until July 2006.
One of his roles was helping Abramoff's Russian clients.
When Ney was about to visit Russia as part of a taxpayer-financed trip for congressmen, Heaton, e-mailed Abramoff's lobbying team to ask whether there was "anything we can do" on behalf of the Stolichnoya distilling company that Abramoff represented.
Ney agreed to insert an amendment to allow Stolichnoya label its product as "Made in Russia" when that client's product was to be distilled in a former Soviet Republic.
While in Russia, the documents say, Ney and Heaton contacted the U.S. consulate to help one of Abramoff's Russian clients secure a visa for travel to the U.S. for the daughter of one of Abramoff's Russian clients. When Heaton returned to the U.S. he called to Abramoff's client in Moscow, "to walk through the process" for obtaining the visa.
Heaton has agreed to cooperate in the Abramoff investigation and faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and at $250,000 fine. Judge Huvelle indicated that under federal sentencing guidelines, he faces 18-24 months and depending on his cooperation agreement he may spend less time in prison.
Abramoff began serving a 70-month prison sentence last year at a minimum security federal correctional institution on a Florida gambling casino fraud conviction - won't be back in court until June to set a date for his sentencing in his Washington influence-peddling scandal conviction.
Prosecutors say Abramoff's continuing cooperation in the probe is still crucial to their ongoing investigation.
Including Heaton, so far eight people -- Abramoff, Ney and former associates Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy, Neil Volz and Adam Kidan, and Interior Department official Roger Stillwell -- have pleaded guilty. Stillwell was sentenced to two-year probation. In June, David Safavian, the former top procurement officer at the Office of Management and Budget, was found guilty on four charges of making false statements and obstructing justice stemming from his dealings with Abramoff. He was sentenced to 18-months, but has appealed his conviction.
Joel Seidman is an NBC producer based in Washington, D.C.