WASHINGTON – Ohio Rep. Bob Ney admitted improperly accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of trips, meals, sports tickets and casino chips while trying to win favors for a disgraced Washington lobbyist and a foreign aviation company run by a gambler known as "the Fat Man."
Ney, a six-term Republican, had defiantly denied any wrongdoing for months, but he reversed course and agreed to plead guilty in court papers filed Friday. Prosecutors will recommend he serve 27 months in prison. Ney was expected to formally plead guilty in court Oct. 13.
"I have made serious mistakes and am sorry for them," Ney, 52, said in a statement. "I am very sorry for the pain I have caused to my family, my constituents in Ohio and my colleagues." His lawyer said he had begun treatment for alcohol dependency.
Ney became the first lawmaker to admit wrongdoing in the election-year congressional corruption probe spawned by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney said he was hopeful "that someday the good I have tried to do will be measured alongside the mistakes I have made."
Ney agreed to plead guilty to making false statements and conspiracy to commit fraud, make other false statements and violate U.S. lobbying restrictions. The charges could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years and fines of up to $500,000 plus repayment of any improper gifts.
The chairman of Ohio's Republican Party, Bob Bennett, said Ney's apology "rings hollow," and he urged the lawmaker to resign "and begin paying the price for his arrogance and greed."
Ney's attorney, William Lawler, said the congressman, who announced last month he wouldn't seek re-election, has no plans to resign.
"He's taking it one step at a time," Lawler said. "Today was a step, the treatment is a step."
Prosecutors said Ney improperly accepted trips to play golf, gamble or vacation in Scotland, New Orleans and New York between August 2002 and August 2003. The total cost of the trips by Ney and others exceeded $170,000, court papers said. Ney also admitted accepting meals and sports and concert tickets for himself and his staff from Abramoff and his lobbyists.
Separately, Ney twice flew to London during 2003 to meet with a foreign businessman who was not identified by name in court papers. The foreign businessman is Fouad al-Zayat, a Syrian-born partner in FN Aviation of Cyprus, according to two people close to the investigation. These people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the plea agreement. Al-Zayat is known in Britain as a prominent gambler nicknamed "The Fat Man."
Ney's congressional travel records indicate he and an aide met with al-Zayat's business partner in FN Aviation, Nigel Winfield.
The February 2003 meeting with FN Aviation was arranged to discuss U.S. sanctions against the sale of aviation parts to Iran, but those involved did not discuss specific sales or proposals, according to one of the people familiar with the case.
The Justice Department said Ney on those trips accepted thousands of dollars worth of free casino chips from the foreign businessman and parlayed them into $50,000 in total gambling winnings playing card games. On one occasion, Ney gave $5,000 to a staff member to carry through U.S. Customs so that Ney could report receiving a lesser amount, prosecutors said.
FN Aviation paid the $5,414 cost of the four-day February trip by Ney and an aide, according to Ney's congressional travel records.
Al-Zayat could not be reached immediately for comment by The Associated Press.
The Justice Department said the foreign businessman and his partner sought Ney's help obtaining a travel visa and selling U.S.-made airplanes and parts to a foreign country, and that the businessman's company paid for Ney's trip to London in February 2003.
FN Aviation's former U.S. lobbyists, Roy Coffee and David DiStefano — a former Ney aide — have said they worked with Ney to seek a special government permit to let FN Aviation sell plane parts to Iran despite U.S. trade sanctions. The permit never was awarded.
DiStefano was Ney's chief of staff before becoming a lobbyist and coordinated Ney's first congressional campaign in 1994.
"People must have faith and confidence in their elected officials," said Alice Fisher, who runs the criminal division of the Justice Department. She said Ney had "acted in his own interests, not in the interests of his constituents."
House Majority Leader John Boehner, also from Ohio, described Ney as a skilled lawmaker and good friend. "Clearly Bob made mistakes, and he is now feeling the full weight of those mistakes," Boehner said. "His actions violated the law, and he must be held accountable."
Ney did not participate in any of the 10 roll call votes in the House on Thursday, an indication he was away from the Capitol.
Republican voters in Ney's district selected a replacement candidate Thursday as word of legal developments surfaced. State Sen. Joy Padgett, backed by party leaders, won easily and will face Democrat Zack Space in the fall.
Ney had a unique power perch in the House when the year dawned, as chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the internal workings of the 435-member chamber. Speaker Dennis Hastert pressured Ney into surrendering his chairmanship earlier this year as concern rippled through the GOP ranks about the Abramoff scandal.
Still, as recently as early summer, Ney said he intended to seek re-election in the sprawling, rural district in eastern Ohio he has represented since 1994. He changed his mind at the prodding of party leaders who feared the loss of his seat in November if he remained on the ballot.
At Abramoff's request, prosecutors said, Ney proposed four amendments in early 2002 that would have helped Abramoff and his lobbying clients. These included proposals to allow commercial gambling by two Indian tribes, help a Russian drink manufacturer and compel the U.S. government to give property to a religious school founded by Abramoff.
None of the amendments succeeded.
Ney had sought to add them to the "Help America Vote Act," a law aimed at election reform.
Ney consistently denied any wrongdoing, even after his former chief of staff pleaded guilty in May. The aide, Neil Volz, confessed to conspiring to corrupt the congressman and others with trips and other aid. Volz became a business partner of Abramoff after leaving the congressional payroll.
Any guilty plea almost certainly would renew Democratic charges of a Republican "culture of corruption" in the House.
While Ney becomes 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.
In addition to Abramoff and Volz, the scandal has produced guilty pleas by two former congressional aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay resigned from Congress earlier in the year. He has not been charged in the federal investigation, but is under indictment on state charges in Texas in a different case. He has denied all wrongdoing.
Prosecutors also won a conviction in the Abramoff case against former White House official David Safavian, formerly the Bush administration's top procurement official.
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.