The groundskeeper at the Muskingum County Courthouse in the middle of U.S. Rep. Bob Ney’s sprawling eastern Ohio district was thinking of cutting more than just the bushes.
Robbie Frame, a 27-year-old Republican, was considering ending his consistent vote for Ney, the six-term congressman who handily won his GOP primary last week despite a widening ethics scandal that has snared his former chief of staff.
Neil Volz pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to corrupt Ney, his staff and other members of Congress with trips, free tickets, meals, jobs for relatives and campaign events.
Volz was the fourth person convicted in the criminal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s operation, along with Abramoff and two former congressional staffers who worked for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Longtime Ney backers including Frame say they might drop their support if the scandal touches the congressman himself.
“If he’s guilty, he’s guilty,” Frame said Monday as he pruned Japanese maple outside the courthouse.
Other Republican voters in this reliably GOP area said they are standing behind Ney, whom Democrats and even some Republicans consider vulnerable _ an opinion that gained strength when a little-known runner-up took a third of the vote in Ney’s first primary test in a decade.
Joan Klies, 61, from nearby Chandlersville, said she’s voted for Ney since his first election in 1994 and hopes he will emerge unscathed. “I like the man. I want him to be innocent,” she said.
Ney, 51, has not been charged and says he was duped by Abramoff, who alleges he got Ney’s help in exchange for gifts. Ney’s office issued a statement Monday criticizing the Justice Department, calling Volz’s plea agreement “thin at best.”
In a nine-page document that focused on Ney’s conduct, Volz described 16 actions he said his old boss took on behalf of Abramoff clients. From January 2000 through April 2004, Volz said Abramoff and his lobbyists gave Ney and members of his staff trips to Lake George in New York state; New Orleans; the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., in 2003; and a weeklong golfing retreat to the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, with a second leg to London.
Ney lawyer Mark Tuohey said the congressman and his staff paid their expenses on the domestic trips and that Ney went to Scotland to meet separately with representatives of the Scottish Parliament and U.S. military.
Tuohey disputed many of the allegations and said “the government has been sold a bill of goods by Mr. Abramoff.”
Abramoff and the three former aides are now government witnesses whose prison terms may depend on their cooperation.
In the November election, Ney faces Democrat Zack Space, who has left no doubt the lobbying scandal is the focus of his campaign. Ney said last week he believed Democratic attacks on him have had little sway with voters.
“I’m taking nothing for granted, but we’re looking pretty good right now,” Ney said.
Ney has a reputation for willingness to buck GOP leaders while looking out for the 18th District, a conservative, 16-county region of farms, working and abandoned mines, Appalachian hills and Rust Belt cities. His office takes credit for more than $107 million in grants, road projects and loan programs delivered to the district since 2004.
Ney has enjoyed strong labor backing and support across party lines. He’s won at least 60 percent of the vote in the last four general elections, and had no opponent two years ago.
“I think it’s just been a very safe district for him over the years, and he’s counting on that to prevail,” said Herb Weisberg, an Ohio State University political scientist.
Allegations alone don’t seem to have undermined Ney’s chances, Weisberg said, but “if there was actually an indictment against him, that would pull the plug.”
Shawn Crawmer, of Zanesville, said he votes a straight GOP ticket but could change that if Ney is charged.
“Since he’s a Republican, I’d vote for him,” said Crawmer, 37. “But if he’s indicted, that’s different.”
Associated Press writers David Hammer and Pete Yost in Washington and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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