Bob Ney is hardly a household name, but in Congress, the Ohio Republican is well-known as "the mayor of Capitol Hill."
As chairman of the Committee on House Administration, Ney controls such key perks as congressional contracts, office space, parking places and even the cafeteria menus. He's the one who replaced "french fries" with "freedom fries" after the French opposed invading Iraq. Such authority sounds mundane, but, in fact, he wields plenty of power.
"A good part of Bob Ney's power comes from the reality that members of Congress are constantly going to him and asking for little things," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "From the ability to have a room to run a reception to making sure that your administrative assistant gets to park reasonably close to the elevator -- those little things accumulate, so you do not want the chair of the house administration committee to be unhappy with you."
But now, court documents suggest Ney may have received favors in an alleged "corruption scheme" involving Washington's most notorious lobbyists: Jack Abramoff and his former partner, Mike Scanlon. They allegedly schemed to cheat their clients, enrich themselves and shower members of Congress with political contributions.
Last month, Scanlon struck a plea bargain that left him smiling: a reduced prison sentence in return for his cooperation.
Now that Scanlon is cooperating with federal authorities, some speculate he could cause problems for Ney.
"I think that Congressman Ney had better get right with his God," said Texas political consultant Marc Schwartz. Schwartz, who had extensive dealings with Abramoff and Scanlon, is cooperating in the federal investigation. In his first television interview, Schwartz tells "Nightline's" Chris Bury that Scanlon's testimony could be damaging for Ney.
'Pay to Play'
"The information that he can provide would be extremely beneficial in uncovering what has become, in my opinion, a 'pay to play' scheme," Schwartz said.
In Texas, Schwartz represented the Tigua Indians of El Paso in their campaign to re-open the Speaking Rock Casino after the state had shut it down.
In 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon -- who had once worked with the Tigua's competitors to shut the casino, sold the tribe on a secret plan, called "Operation Open Doors," to get Congress to reopen Speaking Rock. But the Tiguas would have to pay to play.
"We anticipate the tribe will have to make approximately $300,000 in federal political contributions," the document read.
The scheme called for language to be quietly inserted into an entirely unrelated election reform bill. According to the tribe's consultant, the key contact would be Congressman Bob Ney. In March 2002, Abramoff sent Scanlon this e-mail: "Just met with Ney! We're f'ing gold. He's going to do Tigua."
"He agreed to put language into the bill on the House side and would help us, help the tribe in making sure that the language stayed and that this change would be affected," Schwartz said.
Six days later, Abramoff sent Schwartz an e-mail that said, "Congressman Ney. 'Please get the following checks for him asap.'" The requests -- which came from Abramoff -- for Bob Ney's campaign and political action committee -- totaled $32,000.
When "Nightline" asked Schwartz whether he believed it was a quid pro quo arrangement, in which a congressman was getting a certain amount of money in order to achieve a certain piece of legislation, he responded: "As I see it today, certainly yes."
"Nightline" asked him if it was a bribe. "Yes," Schwartz said.
'Absolutely Not' a Bribe
But "Nightline" got a different answer when we asked Ney's attorney Mark Tuohey, "Was this a bribe?"
"Absolutely not," Touhey said.
Congressman Ney declined "Nightline's" request for an interview, but Tuohey said Ney never agreed to influence legislation in return for campaign contributions.
"Mr. Schwartz is making an assumption that's not based on any discussion or any communication with Congressman Ney," Tuohey said. "He would never have accepted that. And Mr. Schwartz is making an assumption that is wrong."
"Nightline" asked if Ney solicited money for these efforts himself. "He did not," Tuohey answered.
Investigators are also looking at Ney's August 2002 golf outing to the famed St. Andrew's course in Scotland. The congressman few over with Abramoff and a handful of others via private jet. In June, Abramoff had sent the Tigua political consultant Marc Schwartz this e-mail: "'Our friend' asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff ... the trip will be quite expensive..."
Schwartz told "Nightline" that "our friend" referred to Bob Ney.
"Jack said many, many times that this was something that the congressman wanted very badly and that he would certainly know that the tribe was one of the benefactors in providing the trip," Schwartz said.
The Tiguas arranged for an allied tribe to pay half the estimated $100,000 cost of the trip through a charity that Abramoff controlled. Ney claims Abramoff misled him about the true source of the money. But Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who now heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says that may be beside the point.
"In the end it doesn't actually matter who pays for the trip," Sloan said. "The fact that he solicited the trip alone is a violation of the law."
Tuohey emphatically denied the accusations to "Nightline's" Chris Bury. "He would not and did not ask for any such thing," Tuohey said. "And let me repeat, Chris, that Congressman Ney has always operated in a very proper manner. He has never solicited and was never part of any understanding or agreement to receive contributions or things of value for legislative acts. That's not the way he operated."
A few days after he returned from Scotland, Ney met with tribal leaders in his Washington office. According to several participants, Ney failed to mention that, by now, the secret plan to re-open their casino had fallen apart in Congress. But Ney did express his gratitude for the golf trip, according to the tribe's consultant.
"He absolutely told the tribe that, thank you very much for your efforts. I appreciate it. We had a great time," Schwartz said.
Questions About a Casino Cruise Line
Ney's efforts on behalf of Abramoff's tribal clients represent only one part of the federal investigation. Sources say the Justice Department is also looking into why Ney attempted to help Abramoff and his business partner in a messy deal to buy a casino cruise line in Florida.
In 2000, Abramoff and his longtime friend Adam Kidan, ran into trouble in their attempt to buy the Suncruz Casino ships from Gus Boulis, a Greek immigrant who had become a wealthy businessman. Twice that year, Ney inserted language into the Congressional Record, first criticizing Boulis as a "bad apple," then praising Kidan, "as a solid individual" in an apparent effort to influence the deal. Kidan and Abramoff have since been indicted for fraud in connection with the financing.
"I think it is not far-fetched to imagine that we could see a large number of indictments, several members of Congress, plenty of staffers from Capitol Hill who benefited from the largess and may have given official help in return, and people from the administration," said Norman Ornstein, the American Enterprise Institute scholar. "Everybody who Ambramoff touched may end up, at a minimum, stained out of this and some of them are going to end up with a permanent stain and wearing stripes."
In fact, Abramoff has weaved a tangled web of money and influence in Washington. The Associated Press had added up more than $800,000 in contributions to at least 33 members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike. And Bob Ney, the "mayor of Capitol Hill" may not be the only congressman touched by this developing scandal. But he has the dubious distinction of being the first.