WASHINGTON – The top aide to convicted former Rep. Bob Ney pleaded guilty Monday to federal conspiracy charges stemming from a congressional bribery scandal that downed his boss.
Smiling nervously at times, William Heaton, 28, acknowledged accepting a golf trip to Scotland, expensive meals, and tickets to sporting events between 2002 and 2004 as payoffs for helping clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Heaton worked for Ney, R-Ohio, from September 2001 to July 2006, ultimately serving as his chief of staff.
"You received things of value in exchange for performing functions for Mr. Abramoff and other lobbyists who worked for him, as well as a foreign businessman. Is that correct?" U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle asked Heaton during the 20-minute hearing.
"Yes, your honor," Heaton replied in a firm voice. He pleaded guilty to one count of federal conspiracy.
He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, but probably would serve between 18 and 24 months as outlined under federal sentencing guidelines. No date was set for sentencing.
Heaton has agreed to give the Justice Department information that might be useful in an ongoing investigation that has targeted lobbyists, lawmakers, their aides and members of the Bush administration.
Among other things, Heaton acknowledged accepting trips to New Orleans and Lake George, N.Y., an Adirondack resort village. He also took what Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell IV and other prosecutors described as thousands of dollars worth of gambling chips from a foreign businessman at a casino during a travel stop in London. The unnamed businessman was hoping to sell U.S.-made airplanes and airplane parts in a foreign country.
In exchange, Heaton said he helped Ney insert an amendment into election reform legislation to benefit at least one Indian tribe in Texas that was an Abramoff client. And he lobbied the State Department for a travel visa for the daughter of another Abramoff client in Russia.
Heaton underreported how much the Scotland trip was worth and its purpose on Ney's congressionally required travel disclosure forms. He admitted he helped conceal some of the money Ney received, storing it in a safe in the congressman's office.
He also lied on his own House financial disclosure forms, describing the golf trip as official travel and failing to report gifts Abramoff gave him.
Heaton, a 2000 graduate of the College of William & Mary, declined to comment to reporters as he left Huvelle's courtroom. Before becoming Ney's chief of staff, he was a floor assistant to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and worked for the Committee on House Administration, which Ney once chaired.
Ney was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in January for trading political favors for golf trips, campaign donations and other gifts in the Abramoff lobbying scandal. Ney was the first congressman charged in the affair.