WASHINGTON – Identified in new court documents as "Representative No. 1," Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio has become the poster boy in the Jack Abramoff bribery probe, a beneficiary of trips, tickets and campaign donations, allegedly in exchange for official acts.
Ney denies doing anything wrong, and he would hardly appear to be in the top tier of likely targets for Washington lobbyists.
He is chairman of the House Administration Committee. The panel's work is often mundane, but important to everyone on the Hill — from overseeing the distribution of office furniture to protecting the Capitol after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As low-profile as his duties might seem to be, Ney appears to face serious legal problems, has a legal defense fund and has hired a well-known Washington defense attorney, Mark Tuohey, a former deputy in Independent Counsel Ken Starr's criminal investigation of the Clintons.
Ney's relationship with Abramoff could end up hurting him on the political front back home, where Democrats hope to mount a strong challenge to the six-term congressman. He won re-election by a 2-1 margin in 2004.
"There's absolutely no question we're going after this seat; I think we can take it," Susan Gwinn, the Athens County, Ohio, Democratic Party chairwoman, said Tuesday night.
"I would love to see a close race," said Democrat Roxanne Groff, who lost to Ney in a 1992 state Senate campaign.
Among the candidates are Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer, a Vietnam veteran, running on a platform of returning ethics to Ney's eastern Ohio congressional district.
"Given what has come out, it seems very likely that Bob Ney would draw a strong opponent," said University of Akron political science professor John Green. "If one were tempted to run against Bob Ney, this would certainly be seen as the time."
The unwelcome notoriety Ney faces raises an intriguing question: Who else on Capitol Hill is in the prosecutors' gun-sights?
One man who may have some answers is Michael Scanlon, the former partner in Abramoff's lobbying firm. Scanlon, an ex-aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has become a government witness in the Abramoff investigation.
Scanlon pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to bribe public officials, a charge growing out of the government investigation of attempts to defraud Indian tribes and corrupt a member of Congress.
But for now, Ney is Exhibit A. Three full pages in the court papers in Scanlon's guilty plea Monday itemize things of value to Ney or his staff and official acts allegedly performed in return.
Ney has ready responses for all of them.
The congressman says he was misled by Abramoff about who was paying for a 2002 golf trip to Scotland. Ney said "I was told point blank" that a conservative policy group was footing the bill.
Ney said he backed a measure to help reopen an Indian-operated gambling casino in Texas after being assured by Abramoff that Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., supported it. Dodd said neither Abramoff nor Scanlon ever contacted him about it.
When evidence emerged that Abramoff and Scanlon had collected $80 million for representing six American Indian tribes with casinos, Ney said, "You do something that is in good faith — how did I know what they were charging their clients? Why would I hurt anyone, especially an Indian tribe?"
Ney has interesting historical connections to another Ohio congressman, the late Rep. Wayne Hays, who chaired the same committee that Ney now heads.
Hays put his mistress on his payroll as his secretary, and when the arrangement was publicly disclosed, Hays was forced out of his chairmanship and eventually Congress.
Elected to the Ohio House, Hays then lost a bid for re-election to Ney.
When Ney was elected to Congress in 1994, he asked to be on Hays' old committee. He wanted to be chairman. He got his wish.