Scrutiny Falls on Those Close to Lobbyist

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff faces a Senate committee hearing next week and the Justice Department is looking into his activities as well. The charge that Abramoff billed Indian tribes millions of dollars and took members of Congress on luxury trips overseas has made many in Washington nervous. Many powerful lawmakers of both parties did business with Abramoff — including Ohio Republican Bob Ney.

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Whatever happens to the House Ethics Committee, Jack Abramoff faces investigations by a Senate committee and the Justice Department. Tom DeLay is not the only lawmaker who has dealt with Abramoff. NPR's Peter Overby has this report on Ohio Republican Bob Ney.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

His story begins late in 2001. Congressman Ney, a low-profile but influential committee chairman, is shepherding the Help America Vote Act through the House. It's Congress' attempt to prevent any replay of the 2000 election controversies.

Representative ROBERT NEY (Republican, Ohio): We do have the greatest democracy in the world. We want the people to feel comfortable with our election process. This bill does that.

OVERBY: And lobbyist Jack Abramoff wanted to make it do something else, too, for one of his clients: reopen a casino belonging to the Tigua reservation Indians, a small tribe in El Paso, Texas. The Tiguas were desperate to get the casino going again. It had just been shut down by state law. Abramoff and his consultant sidekick, Michael Scanlon, had worked hard to make that statewide casino shutdown happen. Then they had gone to the Tiguas and offered to help them get back in business for a proposed fee in excess of $5 million. Abramoff and his lawyer declined to comment for this story.

But the saga is documented in e-mails given to Senate investigators by Abramoff's former law firm. They show that in March 2002, Abramoff recruited Ney to slip a Tigua casino provision into the final version of the Help America Vote Act. After Ney agreed to help, Abramoff e-mailed to Scanlon, quote, "Just met with Ney. We're F-ing gold. He's going to do Tigua." Marc Schwartz, an El Paso public relations consultant to the Tiguas, later testified to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Mr. MARC SCHWARTZ (Public Relations Consultant): On March 26th, I received a phone call from Mr. Abramoff, telling me that the tribe needed to make additional contributions to Congressman Ney through some PACs he had. He told me it was critical.

OVERBY: Critical and expensive. The contributions came to $32,000. And one other thing.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: On June 7th of the same year, I received an e-mail from Abramoff, stating that Congressman Ney had asked if the tribe could cover an expense for a trip to Scotland.

OVERBY: Abramoff asked for $50,000. The Tiguas never did ante up for that trip, but some other tribes apparently did. In August 2002, Ney, Abramoff, Scanlon and a few others flew to Scotland. Their main objective: the fabled golf course at St. Andrews. Ney says the trip was Abramoff's idea. Ney's office also says he had official business, too, visiting members of the Scottish parliament. That's important, because the gift of a vacation would violate House rules.

But by then, the whole Tigua project had imploded. Abramoff had told Ney that Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd would join them on the Tigua provision, but then Dodd told Ney he had never signed on. One night in late July, Abramoff e-mailed Scanlon, quote, "Mike, please call me immediately to tell me how we wired this, or were supposed to wire it. Ney feels we left him out to dry." And even though Abramoff and Ney continued to give the Tiguas upbeat assessments of their progress, they never found a bill to which they could add the casino provision. Ney now says he was duped by Abramoff.

A liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, drafted a complaint against Ney last month. Melanie Sloan, the group's director, says the e-mails show him trading legislation for campaign contributions.

Mr. MELANIE SLOAN (Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): There was no reason for Abramoff to be expecting anybody else to ever be reading this e-mail, so he was just writing things as they happened. And in law, that would generally give them a greater indicia of reliability, because they were being done in what we call the regular course of business.

Mr. KEN GROSS (Campaign Finance Attorney): First of all, a political contribution is not a bribe.

OVERBY: Washington campaign finance attorney Ken Gross, who has no client in this case, says Sloan is misinterpreting the law about campaign contributions.

Mr. GROSS: It's the way we fund elections in this country through private contributions. And the Supreme Court has so recognized that. So some of this sounds good from a newspaper perspective, but when you get into a courtroom, you are far, far away from making a case based on a political contribution and an action taken by a person in office.

OVERBY: As for the trip to Scotland, Ney says it's a bookkeeping problem, that like many other House members, he was misled about who was paying for it. Ney says now he might write legislation to clarify the rules, not the rules about taking trips, but about disclosing them.

Rep. NEY: We now have 200-some members scrambling around to see who filed what and when, and was it right. When you have 200-some members, I would not disparage my colleagues and say, `Oh, they tried to not file correctly.' I wouldn't do that to any of them.

OVERBY: So far, no Democratic House member has picked up Melanie Sloan's draft complaint and asked the Ethics Committee to investigate Ney. Ney's office says he has not been contacted by the Justice Department, either, but he has retained a criminal defense lawyer. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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