By MATT APUZZO
Rep. Bob Ney’s agreement to plead guilty to federal corruption charges was not only the biggest win yet for the Justice Department in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, it was also a loud reminder that the case is not going away.
Ney, an Ohio Republican who spent months proclaiming his innocence, is the first congressman charged in the corruption case. But with Abramoff’s money and influence spread up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capitol Hill to the White House, experts don’t expect prosecutors to stop there.
"I would be surprised if a single congressman was the only feather in the government’s cap," said David H. Angeli, an Oregon defense attorney and vice chairman of the white collar unit for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "They may have started with the easiest cases they have."
Ney agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and to making false statements. He admitted in court papers that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of trips and other perks from Abramoff and an international businessman.
The six-term lawmaker cut a deal with prosecutors that recommends more than two years in prison. That sentence will become something of a benchmark in negotiations with other government officials in the case, attorneys said.
"Anyone who’s had his photograph taken with Abramoff gets nervous when someone else pleads guilty. They’re looking over their shoulders, they’re calling their lawyers," said Los Angeles white collar defense attorney Michael J. Proctor.
That list includes former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is under scrutiny in the case, and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who received about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff and his associates and whose aides traveled on the lobbyist’s jet to the 2001 Super Bowl.
Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., also used Abramoff’s luxury sports box for a fundraiser without initially reporting it. Doolittle’s wife and one of his former aides also worked for Abramoff.
Two DeLay aides have pleaded guilty in the case, as has Ney’s former chief of staff, Neil Volz. Former Bush White House official David Safavian was found guilty in June of covering up his dealings with Abramoff while a General Services Administration official.
While Ney’s plea agreement increases the pressure, and the stakes, in the case, it doesn’t guarantee more charges. Neither DeLay nor the current lawmakers have been charged in the case and all maintain their innocence.
"It means there’s more than smoke. There’s fire. Who ultimately gets burned by the fire remains to be seen," said Charles G. La Bella, former head of the Justice Department’s campaign finance unit. "Just because one person pleads guilty doesn’t mean everyone who’s been named in the outer rings will ultimately be implicated."
Ney’s plea deal also represents a strategic victory for prosecutors, who didn’t have to use Abramoff as a witness. Abramoff still hasn’t had to take the stand in any of the cases, allowing prosecutors to keep mining his information without revealing it to defense attorneys.
But someday, La Bella predicted, Abramoff will take the stand.
"Someone’s going to say: ‘No, I’m not going to fold my cards. I’m not going to plead guilty. I’m going to make you take me to trial because I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong,’" he said.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press