Former Rep. Robert Ney, R-OH, a former member of the House Financial Services Committee who spent nearly a year and a half in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges arising from the Jack Abramoff Native American lobbying scandal, believes the American political system "corrupt and broken."
Now a radio commentator, Ney provided a rare glimpse into the dysfunctional workings of Capitol Hill in an hour-long interview with Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, who himself worked as a Senate staffer back in the 1970s.
Ney was promoting his new book, "Sideswiped: Lessons Learned Courtesy of the Hit Men of Capitol Hill." Thankfully, the book doesn't have a lengthy subtitle like "Moving from Capitol Hill to K Street, by Way of Ohio and West Virginia, then Hanging a Right on L Street and Grabbing a Snack from a Food Truck at Farragut Square."
Ney's story is consistent with the view that prosecutorial decisions at the Department of Justice (DoJ), as with so much of policy made in Washington, often depends on the career needs of officials intent on advancing their careers. He blames a woman he calls "Pretty Alice Fisher," whose appointment as Assistant Attorney General for the DoJ's Criminal Division, according to Ney, was in trouble in 2006 after Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, criticized her in a Senate speech.
Ney recalls that House Speaker John Boehner, Ney's Republican colleague from Ohio, called and gave him 24 hours to pull out of his re-election race after Ney had won the primary. Ney alleges that Boehner offered him a job with comparable salary, plus help in funding his legal defense, but he warned that Ney must accept by the deadline or the offer would lapse. Evidently Boehner was eager to find a replacement candidate in time to meet the filing deadline. Ney complained bitterly that after he accepted the offer, he was never able to get through to Boehner's office regarding the commitments Boehner had made.
Ney is forthright in admitting that he committed illegal acts, but he fingers others who engaged in the same or even worse abuses than his. When eating and drinking on Abramoff's tab, he recalls having to shove Bush White House staffers aside. He mentioned former Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, as a prime beneficiary of his own prosecution, on the theory that once Ney was nabbed, it fulfilled Pretty Alice's need and took Delay off the hook as far as a federal indictment was concerned.
He alleges that a former Delay chief of staff received $1 million from Abramoff laundered through a foundation, and added an accusation that a gentleman named Ed Buckham was also paid. He noted that Abramoff told 60 Minutes that he spent $1 million on 100 members of Congress; Ney estimated $30,000 of this amount was spent on this.
Another prominent name Ney mentioned as part of the Abramoff operation is Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, whom Ney said was involved in a "secret plot" in which Reed was paid millions for acting like he was trying to close a casino that Abramoff would then rescue on behalf of the tribes.
One gets the distinct impression Ney thinks Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is a phony, for at least two reasons. One is that when McCain held his hearing on the Abramoff scandals, he called Abramoff, not Reed, and the only name mentioned was Ney's. Second, Ney noted that with the possible exception of rides on private planes, all of the abuses that were supposed to be curtailed under the McCain-Feingold so-called "reforms" are flourishing "on steroids" now. He quipped, "Anything I did with Jack Abramoff is now codified. We can hunt, have $3,000 to $4,000 dinners, fly to Las Vegas, have dinner, raise $125,000, all legal, as long as we stand up at the receptions."
Lamb's mere mention of "Foxcomm" elicited from Ney a remark that Alice wanted to indict him for this deal, but at the end of the day, it was a deal initiated by then-Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., in response to complaints by members that they could not get cell phone signals in the underground tunnels and caverns of the Capitol.
Ney said he consulted the National Security Agency to get the appropriate protocols and the major telecom companies to learn their preferences. A bitter contest between LGC, represented by Haley Barbour, and the U.S. affiliate of Tel Aviv's Foxcomm, represented by Abramoff, was resolved in favor of Foxcomm, but not before Barbour had argued the contract should not go to "a Jew company" and Foxcomm had warned Ney that his Jewish support would be jeopardized if he caved to this pressure. Ney's involvement in awarding this contract is part of the factual basis for Ney's guilty plea. (This episode shows the lengths to which both sides would stoop to win the contract once it was in play.)
Another charge included in the factual basis for Ney's plea is that he received $50,000 in chips at a London casino from a foreign businessman who was allegedly helping to obtain planes for Iran. He said that other members received chips, but were protected by the Speech and Debate clause.
Ney has clearly paid a steep personal price, having gone through two divorces and lost his career, but he credits Ellen Ratner, White House correspondent and bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service, with helping him put his life back together, and he told Lamb that he has gone through a 12-step process of withdrawal from alcohol and has not had a drink since Sept. 13, 2006.
His concluding advice to the audience is, "At the end of the day, on this shiny Hill are wonderful people, but also, the system is corrupt and broken." As his final example, he said that congressional staff routinely leave their offices and go to the respective war rooms of the parties and make fundraising calls.
Missing from this discussion was any mention of charges Abramoff has leveled that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., received $1.6 million for unregistered lobbying activities on behalf of Freddie Mac. The relevance of this is two-fold. First, Ney and the entire Ohio delegation were in the forefront of congressional support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at the height of their power on Capitol Hill. Second, with the debate over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac heating up again, activities on their behalf are ramping up, even though the entities themselves are under conservatorship and not allowed to engage in lobbying.
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