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Ney Chief of Staff Takes Stand at Safavian Trial

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Ney Chief of Staff Takes Stand at Safavian Trial

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Ney Chief of Staff Takes Stand at Safavian Trial

Ney Chief of Staff Takes Stand at Safavian Trial

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Various Capitol Hill figures pose in front of the private jet they took for a 2002 golf outing at the world-famous St. Andrews course in Scotland. Total tab: $100,000. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff financed the outing. hide caption

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From left: Neil Volz, former chief of staff for Rep. Bob Ney; Ralph Reed, a former lobbyist and current candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia; congressional staffer Paul Vinovich; Rep. Bob Ney; William Heaton, Ney's chief of staff; former Bush administration official David Safavian; Michael Williams, who worked with Abramoff at the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig; Abramoff's son, Alex; and Jack Abramoff.

Ohio Republican Bob Ney's name has been repeatedly mentioned in connection with the corruption scandal centering on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney has yet to be charged in connection with the case. But on Tuesday, the Justice Department put former Ney Chief of Staff Neil Volz on the stand in the trial of former Bush administration official David Safavian.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's learn more about one reason that lawmakers might be nervous about investigations. Jack Abramoff, once a powerful Republican lobbyist, has pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and now former Bush administration official David Safavian is the first defendant in the investigation to stand trial.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

So far, the task force has won five guilty pleas from Abramoff himself, plus three former lobbyists and a business associate of Abramoff's. Texas Congressman Tom DeLay's announcement that he would resign from Congress closely followed the plea by his former counsel, Tony Rudy.

One Congressman has been repeatedly mentioned in the plea agreements, and has not been charged: Ohio Republican Bob Ney. Yesterday, at David Safavian's trial in federal district court, the Justice Department rolled out a potential star witness against Ney; Neil Volz, Ney's Chief of Staff, who then went to work for Abramoff. Ney wasn't on trial, but his name just kept coming up.

Volz, said Ney, was what Team Abramoff called a champion, an insider that their lobby clients could count on for favors. Volz said he consulted Ney before inserting statements in the Congressional record to boost the business deal for Abramoff. And Volz went on in detail about a costly golf trip to Scotland in 2002 - a trip financed by Abramoff and in which Ney was a central figure.

Washington ethics lawyer William Canfield has been following the Abramoff investigation. He says yesterday amounted to a test-run for Neil Volz.

Mr. WILLIAM CANFIELD (Ethics Lawyer, Williams & Jensen): They have sort of showcased Neil Volz in the Safavian trial to see what kind of witness he makes on the stand, to see if he's credible in the eyes of the jury.

OVERBY: And to see if he helps prosecutors make the case they're trying right now.

Safavian was Chief of Staff at the General Services Administration. Volz said he was Team Abramoff's champion there, as well. GSA controlled two pieces of real-estate that Abramoff was interested in. In extensive e-mails, Abramoff consulted Safavian on how to approach the agency. Safavian went on the golfing trip to Scotland, and he's charged with lying about it to ethics officers.

Safavian's lawyer says Safavian paid what he thought was his share of the trip, and that Safavian was Abramoff's old friend - not a champion to do deals with.

Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor, says any of the golfers is potentially an important witness against Ney.

Mr. RANDALL ELIASON (Former Federal Prosecutor): Because there were undoubtedly conversations that took place during that plane ride or, you know, on the golf courses, that the investigators would be very interested in.

OVERBY: A spokesman for Ney wrote in an e-mail last night that Ney never took action any of the times he was said to be a champion. The spokesman said the whole case against Ney is an alleged quid pro quo, in which Ney never did anything for the alleged favors being bestowed on him.

Still, Ney showed up at the trial in photos from the trip. There he was, in white shorts, with Abramoff, Safavian, Volz, and other smiling travelers. They were standing in front of the Gulf Stream charter jet that would take them to the great golf courses of Scotland.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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