Republican Bob Ney, a six-term congressman from Ohio, pleaded guilty today in Federal District Court to taking bribes in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.
Standing before Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, Ney pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements. He acknowledged taking money, gifts and favors in return for official actions on behalf of Abramoff and his clients.
Ney became the first lawmaker to confess to crimes in the election-year scandal that has stained the Republican-controlled Congress and the Bush administration.
In a statement, Ney said he would resign from Congress in "the next few weeks." Some Republican and Democratic leaders vowed to expel him unless he stepped down right away. The White house today called for Ney to resign immediately.
Three former House GOP aides have already pleaded guilty to corruption charges involving Abramoff, a once powerful lobbyist with especially close ties to top Republicans. Abramoff pleaded guilty on fraud and conspiracy charges, and will soon enter federal prison.
For two weeks, Republicans have tried to move the national conversation away from disgraced former congressman Mark Foley. And that is just what happened when North Korea claimed it had tested a nuclear bomb.
At President Bush's news conference this week, North Korea and other national security issues dominated the questioning. Only one question about the Foley sex scandal emerged. Now the conversation could veer back to honesty and ethics, areas in which the Democrats already lead in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The Abramoff fallout has now spread wider, with a Senate Finance Committee report maintaining that five conservative nonprofit groups may have illegally helped the once powerful lobbyist.
Most notable are the charges aimed at Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, an influential adviser to Republicans with close ties to President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove. The organizations cited in the report deny any wrongdoing.
A spokesman for Norquist's group, John Kartch, said in a statement to ABC News: "The report was authored by the Democrat staff of the Committee and peddled to the press three weeks before the election and one day after it was discovered Democrat Senator Harry Reid made a million dollars in ways you and I can't. ... Nobody should misuse the Finance Committee for political purposes."
Democratic staffers did write the 600-page report, but Republicans agreed to make it public. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairs the committee.
The report states that Abramoff channeled money from his clients to the groups who, in turn, "were generally available to carry out Mr. Abramoff's requests for help with his clients in exchange for cash payments."
Committee investigators said the groups may have violated their tax-exempt status by helping Abramoff and his clients. Federal law prohibits tax-exempt groups from accepting money to lobby or provide public relations help, such as writing newspaper op-ed columns or news releases.
There is no indication yet whether the Justice Department or Internal Revenue Service will also investigate the groups. Nor is it clear that allegations about conservative-leaning nonprofits will hurt Republicans in the midterm elections.
But Bob Ney is another matter, and top Republicans were quick to disown him.
The House GOP leadership, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, issued a joint statement: "There is no place for him in this Congress. If he chooses not to resign his office, we will move to expel him immediately." Actually, Ney's lawyer had just announced Ney would resign, but Hastert and other GOP leaders were apparently taking no chances.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi had already criticized the GOP leaders: "Speaker Hastert and the Republican leadership have allowed Mr. Ney to remain on the public payroll for a month after his admission of guilt to criminal conspiracy charges. House Republican leaders have a long pattern of protecting Republican members, even when it comes at great cost to the American people." That last sentence sounds familiar to recent Democratic charges that Hastert was not tough enough, early enough, on Mark Foley.
On top of all the other scandal headaches the GOP has suffered, the Washington Post reported today that Democrats are "targeting the personal lives of Republicans in numerous key races as part of a campaign to capitalize on voter disgust with the messy personal lives and alleged character defects among elected officials."
Among the House races cited: New Jersey, where a Democratic candidate accused the Republican incumbent of "preying on young women in a fashionable D.C. nightclub." The Republican, Mike Ferguson, has strongly denied the charge.
In Pennsylvania, a Democratic challenger's ad accuses Rep. Don Sherwood of "attempting to strangle" a young girlfriend. Sherwood admits to the affair but denies there was ever any abuse. In New York, a Democrat is trotting out a 30-year-old drunken-driving arrest of his Republican opponent. In Ohio, Democrats are trying to win the seat of the disgraced Bob Ney by attacking GOP candidate Joy Padgett's "personal business dealings."
So, in a sense, the Democrats have moved the conversation from Mark Foley and his sexual overtures to House pages, using the Foley affair as a springboard to make charges against other Republicans. Democrats are doing that in part because they have not profited from the Foley scandal as much as they initially expected.
While the Foley affair may affect a very small number of races, the ABC poll showed voters seem much more concerned about issues that hit them directly, such as national security, Iraq and the economy. So, Democrats have begun to play hardball by challenging the ethics and honesty of individual GOP candidates.
In the past, Democrats have complained about similar tactics by Republicans. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Republicans should be flattered. But that will come as small consolation to the beleaguered Grand Old Party.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.