Bob Ney: Crook... or Con-Man?

Even as all of Washington waits for Rep. Bob Ney to be the first Congressman indicted in the Abramoff scandal, he is still sticking to his story: he was duped. Although he's been pushed out of his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee and disgraced in numerous press accounts, the one-time "Mayor of Capitol Hill" - so nicknamed because of his former power over such perks as parking places -- has also vowed to run for re-election even if he's indicted.

But Ney is hardly a dupe: he's a con-man who worked closely with Abramoff to repeatedly fool a Texas Indian tribe. Ney told the Tiguas of El Paso that a provision he was supposedly promoting in 2002 to re-open their casino actually had a good chance of passage when he knew that it never went anywhere. Back in May, I reported for The American Prospect, drawing on exclusive interviews and Senate testimony, about Ney's role in lying to Tigua representatives that Sen. Chris Dodd had agreed to champion their rider on an unrelated election reform bill in a Congressional conference committee. What's important about the fake Chris Dodd tale that Ney concocted was that this relatively obscure part of the Abramoff scandal underscores that Ney was seemingly an accessory to a crime: the fraud against the Tigua, part of the charges in Abramoff's guilty plea.

If Ney is indeed a con-artist in league with Abramoff, then there's more involved here than just the current discussion in Washington if Ney's favor-trading is business as usual or provable bribery -- even if such deal-making has been a hallmark of his entire career. "Members of Congress are constantly raising and receiving money all the time, and they also perform official acts," Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, told Newsweek. "But there was no quid pro quo." That's one of Ney's main lines of defense, but these claims about the fine line between bribery and traditional fund-raising are demolished if Ney was actually a high-class grifter working the Indian rubes along with Abramoff.

Yet, amazingly enough, mainstream media accounts continue to dutifully report Ney's dubious claim that he was misled as part of press efforts to offer the appearance of fairness to a top Congressional sleazeball. One of the latest examples was Ann Kornblut's recent New York Times piece which reported, "Mr. Ney is working intensely to convince Justice Department lawyers that he was tricked by Mr. Abramoff into doing favors for the lobbyist's clients." Yet while the seeming quid-pro-quo links between Abramoff and Ney have all been well-documented -- the golf junket to Scotland, the meals at Signatures, the $30,000 in tribal donations - in exchange for Ney's errand-boy legislative services, there's been relatively little attention paid to the critical role Ney played in furthering Abramoff's scheme to defraud the Tigua Indian tribe.

Abramoff and associate Michael Scanlon have already pled guilty to conspiring to bribe "Representative # 1" (that's Ney), fraud and other crimes, but Ney's true role in the scheme is revealed by a close look at what happened in the months before it finally became clear to the tribe that the Tigua's provision wasn't going to pass Congress.

As everyone now knows, Abramoff and Scanlon first won $4.2 million in lobbying and PR fees from the Tiguas by promising to help them re-open the casino they had secretly helped shut down on behalf of another tribe. When their double-dealing was exposed at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in November 2004, Ney proclaimed, "I, like these Indian tribes and other members of Congress, was duped by Jack Abramoff."

The Tigua measure timeline tells a different story. He was asked in March 2002 by Abramoff to champion the Tigua bill, by July he learned from Senator Chris Dodd that Dodd had no interest in any gambling provision being attached to election legislation - and then he flew off to Scotland for his infamous August golf trip to St. Andrews.

His golfing partners? They included Jack Abramoff, the now-indicted OMB crony David Safavian, and the evangelical hustler Ralph Reed. On that trip, it's likely the golfing buddies cooked up some new ideas on how to keep the Tiguas reassured about their pet legislative measure, according to a source familiar with the investigation, and affable Bob Ney became their front-man.

Shortly after his return, Ney met with the Tigua officials at his office, charming them while relating the strong progress their bill was making in Congress - less than a month after he learned the measure was dead. "You're measure is taken care of," he told the Tiguas, according to their local lobbyist Marc Schwarz. For months afterwards, Abramoff continued to string the Tiguas along about their measure until the final election bill was voted on in October - without their rider being included. Ney then compounded the fraud by vowing in an October conference call with the Tiguas to continue the fight - while blaming Dodd for betraying him.

Without Bob Ney, Schwartz later told me, "there can't be the perpetuation of a fraud of the Tigua tribe."

Now, thanks to the upcoming testimony of Scanlon and Abramoff, Congressman Ney will likely be saddled with a less distinguished title: partner in crime.