WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert is trying to force out Ohio Rep. Bob Ney as chairman of the House Administration Committee, a week after Ney was linked in Justice Department documents to a bribery scheme involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a senior House aide said Friday.
Ney's committee has jurisdiction over the Republican reform agenda in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, and Hastert believes it is inappropriate to let Ney run it, said the GOP leadership aide, who spoke of anonymity because of the negotiations between Ney and the speaker.
The aide said the speaker himself cannot fire Ney, and unless Ney steps aside it would be at least three weeks until the GOP caucus, currently on holiday break, could consider removing him.
Ney continues to argue he has done nothing wrong. But a Republican close to Ney said he would evaluate what is best for the Republican conference. The congressman was New Orleans on Friday for a hearing on housing needs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and could not be reached immediately for comment.
Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, confirmed that "there have been ongoing discussions between Speaker Hastert and Rep. Ney about his role as chairman of the House Administration Committee."
The development comes after Abramoff's plea agreement this month in an influence peddling scandal involving members of Congress.
Among other accusations, Abramoff said Ney took favors including a 2002 golf trip to Scotland, free dinners and events and campaign donations in exchange for his support of Abramoff's American Indian tribe clients in Texas and the lobbyist's purchase of a fleet of Florida casino boats.
Court papers released as part of Abramoff's plea to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and income tax evasion detailed lavish gifts and contributions that Abramoff says he gave an unnamed House member, identified elsewhere as Ney, a Republican from Ohio.
Other accusations include that Ney supported legislation to help a California Indian tribe with taxes and a post office and, as chairman of the Administration Committee, approved a lucrative deal for an Abramoff client to improve cell phone reception in House buildings.
An Israeli communications company, Foxcom Wireless, received the contract and Abramoff admits to lobbying for Foxcom without reporting it. Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, has said Ney held an open bidding process for the contract and Ney denies ever talking to Abramoff about the deal.
The development regarding Ney's chairmanship comes as House and Senate Republicans scramble to devise a plan that would go well beyond current rules governing travel, gifts and lobbying by former members of Congress and their aides, as part of an effort to curtail the influence of lobbyists on lawmakers.
Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., have floated various proposals, including banning gifts and privately funded travel, ending lobbying by lawmakers' spouses and restricting access by former members of Congress to the floors of the House and Senate as Republicans are struggling to escape fallout from a congressional corruption scandal.
Congressional Democrats will unveil their reform proposals next week, and the bidding war seems to guarantee changes that would dramatically alter the rules.
Ney was elected to Congress from an expansive, rural district in 1994. He won a sixth term in 2004 with 66 percent of the vote, was unopposed in 2002 and hasn't earned less than 60 percent in any election since 1996.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is also among those facing scrutiny for his associations with Abramoff, including an earlier trip to Scotland and use of Abramoff's skybox at a Washington sports arena. DeLay relinquished his leadership post after his indictment on state felony charges in Texas, and permanently gave up the post a week ago, sparking a three-man race to replace him as the No. 2 Republican in the House.