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Ney's Former Top Aide Cops Plea in Abramoff Case

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today federal prosecutors brought Washington's corruption and lobbying scandal to the doorstep of Republican Congressman Bob Ney. No lawmakers have been charged in the long-running probe, but today Niel Volz, who used to be Congressman Ney's closest aid, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Prosecutors have been looking at Bob Ney since last fall, if not longer. The Ohio Congressman is identified as Representative Number One in a succession of plea agreements, including that of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And now, Representative Number One is squarely in the prosecutors' sights. When Niel Volz pleaded guilty today, he promised to fully cooperate with the government.

Standing before Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, Volz was businesslike. All of the sadness was reflected in the face of his wife, sitting in the audience. Volz was Ney's friend, and his chief of staff from 1998 until 2002. Then Volz left Ney's office, and went to work for Abramoff. Ian Barron, a veteran Republican ethics lawyer, says the court filing leaves no doubt how the prosecutors would write an indictment of Ney himself.

IAN BARRON: It basically spells it all out. That Abramoff and others offered things of value to Representative Number One and members of his staff, including a whole list of trips and tickets and meals. In exchange Representative Number One agreed to take favorable official action. That's the whole case.

OVERBY: This afternoon, Ney's normally reticent lawyers called a telephone news conference. They said Ney is innocent and has been cooperating with prosecutors, although they wouldn't elaborate. They said that the government has its facts wrong, and they've been providing information to refute the allegations. This, even though four defendants now have pleaded guilty to crimes that they say involve Ney. Those successive plea agreements, now including the one from Volz, only pile on the episodes and the details. They don't take any away. Attorney Mark Tuohey said Abramoff and others were making up allegations to lighten their own sentences.

MARK TUOHEY: They're, you know, singing for their supper. And they're making it up. They're just flat making it up. Some of these allegations here are just made up.

OVERBY: Ney's Congressional spokesman, Brian Walsh, said the lawmaker sympathizes with Volz.

BRIAN WALSH: If Neil did cross an ethical line, he did so without the Congressman's knowledge. The Congressman also recognizes, though, the tremendous brought to bear on Neil by the government, especially with legal bills, and the thoughts and prayers of he and his wife go out to Neil and his family today.

OVERBY: But Ney's lawyers wouldn't predict that the Congressman will escape indictment. This is as far as attorney William Lawler would go:

WILLIAM LAWLER: If the facts are followed in this case, there won't be and shouldn't be an indictment against Congressman Ney.

OVERBY: So for the Congressman, the clock is running and politicians are watching him as closely as prosecutors. He's already given up his committee chairmanship as the Abramoff case intensifies. Again, ethics lawyer Ian Barron:

BARRON: Really, the ball's probably in his court as to whether to attempt an indictment or whether to negotiate some other plea.

OVERBY: Ney easily won his primary less than a week ago. Both parties see him as a leading indicator of how the Democrats' anticorruption campaign might play in November's elections. But Ney may not get that far. If he is indicted, not convicted, just indicted, between now and November, the Chairman of the Ohio Republican Party would ask him to withdraw from the ballot, to be replaced by another Republican. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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