ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
A former congressional aide was sentenced today - the latest chapter in the scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. William Heaton is the seventh defendant in this investigation to go before a sentencing judge.
And as NPR's Peter Overby tells us, today's court appearance was unlike any of the others.
PETER OVERBY: When it sentencing day, the defendants in the Abramoff case, usually, confer grimly with their lawyers or they stare off blankly into the future or maybe the past.
William Heaton entered the courtroom with his lawyers and with the prosecutors, too. They shook hands all around. The chief prosecutor, Mary K. Butler, laid her hand on his shoulder. Heaton had a dark tan suit and a culet(ph) that wouldn't quite lie down. He's 29 years old now. He was just 23 when he first got in over his head as the top aide to the now incarcerated former Congressman Bob Ney.
Heaton is a former congressional page described as the straightest of straight arrows in one of the 53 letters of support received by the judge. Heaton considered Ney his mentor, but the mentoring turned out to include a golf chunk(ph) at the Scotland, a gambling excursion in London, and countless trips to Jack Abramoff's D.C. restaurant for free meals and drinks.
After a period of agonizing, Heaton began cooperating with prosecutors. He passed documents to the FBI and taped phone calls. Eventually, he wore a wire and chatted up Ney through a two-and-a-half-hour dinner. That helped the government seal its case against the congressman. Ney admitted taking bribes from Abramoff and is now serving two-and-a-half-years in prison.
Prosecutors recommended no prison time for Heaton and Federal District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle agreed. She gave him two years probation, community service, and a $5,000 fine. By all accounts, Heaton has been filled with remorse for not standing up to Ney sooner. In court, where no microphones are allowed, he read a long statement of apology, finally telling Huvelle that he stood her, quote, "with the courage I lacked for so many years."
His lawyer, John Nassikas, spoke to reporters after the sentencing.
Mr. JOHN NASSIKAS (Attorney, Arent Fox Law Firm; Heaton's Counsel): He remains apologetic for what he has done in letting many people and the public down.
OVERBY: But as congressional scholar John Pitney points out, this case is just an extreme example of a common dynamic on Capitol Hill.
Prof. JOHN PITNEY (Government, Claremont McKenna College; Congressional Scholar): Staffers in Congress don't have a great deal of legal protection. And if you're young ambitious, the temptation is to bite your tongue and do whatever the member tells you.
OVERBY: Usually, it's something like fetching the dry cleaning. But here, Heaton believed at age 23 that he wasn't qualified to be Ney's chief of staff. He twice turned Ney down before finally accepting the job. For his part, Ney once told another cooperating witness that he liked young staffers who didn't think too much about the ethics rules.
The Abramoff probe is continuing, although mostly out of the public eye. Since the case became public in late 2005, Abramoff and Ney had been imprisoned. Also facing prison sentences are former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles and former Administration Procurement Chief David Safavian. Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, lost his re-election bid. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigned from Congress. Five lobbyists have pleaded guilty and are cooperating. Two Republican Congressmen, John Doolittle and Tom Feeney, are under investigation.
Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.
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