WASHINGTON – Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is expected to plead guilty as early as Friday to at least one criminal charge in an election-year congressional corruption investigation, Republican officials said Thursday night.
Ney, whose ties with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff have long been under scrutiny by prosecutors, has consistently denied all wrongdoing. He announced this summer he would not seek re-election, a step he took reluctantly and at the prodding of party leaders fearful of the loss of his seat.
The Republican officials who described the legal developments said they did not know whether Ney intended to resign his seat in the House. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of pending legal proceedings.
Calls to Ney's home and congressional office were not immediately returned. The Justice Department declined to comment.
The Republican officials said they were not certain whether Ney intended to admit guilt to more than one charge, or precisely what offense would be involved in any plea agreement. They said a prison sentence was not out of the question.
Two officials said Ney would admit to having filed a false disclosure report with the House of Representatives in connection with a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland that Abramoff paid for.
Any guilty plea would almost certainly renew public attention on a Republican-heavy corruption investigation that has unfolded slowly in the months leading to the midterm elections. Democrats have long vowed to make ethics an issue in the campaign.
Ney would become the first member of Congress to plead guilty in the probe. A second lawmaker, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is at the center of a separate investigation involving alleged bribery. He has not been charged and denies all wrongdoing.
Word of the legal pleadings came as Republicans in Ney's sprawling eastern Ohio district selected State Sen. Joy Padgett as a replacement candidate for the Nov. 7 ballot. She will run against Democratic rival Zack Space for a seat that Ney has held for a dozen years — and insisted as recently as this summer that he would not voluntarily give up.
The scandal involving Abramoff, once one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, stretches end-to-end down Pennsylvania Avenue, involving the White House as well as Capitol Hill.
In addition to Abramoff, the scandal has produced guilty pleas by Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, and two ex-Hill aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay, who resigned from Congress earlier this year, long had close ties to Abramoff.
Prosecutors also won a conviction in the Abramoff case against former White House official David Safavian, formerly the Bush administration's top procurement official.
At Safavian's recent trial, prosecutors introduced a photograph of Ney and Abramoff standing next to a private jet that whisked them and other members to a golf outing in Scotland. Also in the photo were two of Ney's aides who went on the weeklong Abramoff-organized junket.
DeLay is among those under scrutiny in the scandal, as is Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who received about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff, his clients and his lobbying partners.
When Volz pleaded guilty in May, he listed 16 actions he said his old boss had taken on behalf of Abramoff's clients from January 2000 through April 2004. During that period, Abramoff and his lobbying team showered Ney with campaign donations, trips, meals at Abramoff's restaurant and tickets to sporting events and concerts.
In 2000, Ney read remarks into the Congressional Record helpful to Abramoff, who was trying to acquire a Florida casino cruise-ship company.
In 2002, Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide who has pleaded guilty in the scandal, promised an Indian tribe that Ney would champion legislation to reopen a tribal casino. When evidence surfaced that Abramoff had bilked the Indian tribe, Ney said, "How did I know what they were charging their clients?"
Later in 2002, Ney went on the weeklong Abramoff-sponsored junket to Scotland and the famed St. Andrews golf course.
Ney said he supported the provision to help the Tigua Indian tribe of Texas reopen its casino after Abramoff told him that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., supported the effort, which Dodd said he had no knowledge of. Ney said the Scotland golf trip had nothing to do with the tribal legislation.
Ney also met with Abramoff about a wireless contract for House office buildings, then awarded the contract to the company the lobbyist represented. The congressman said the award was based on merit through open competition.
Ney said he had been duped into helping Abramoff on both the tribal casino and the Florida deal, and that he was duped again about who paid for the Scotland trip. Abramoff denied misleading Ney.
Ney lawyer Mark Tuohey, a prominent Washington white-collar criminal defense attorneys who once ran the Washington office of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton, said Ney went to Scotland for an official meeting with representatives of the Scottish Parliament.
Ney's public filing for Scotland occurred two years after the trip, a consequence, his lawyers say, stemming from papers intended for the House clerk being misfiled.
By late last year, Ney had set up a legal defense fund and his spokesman was declaring the congressman would fight the "unfounded accusations against him."