By Roxana Tiron - 05/31/06 12:00 AM EDT
Hours after a former aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) testified in court that a few House GOP lawmakers worked with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on a government leasing arrangement, the legislators issued strong denials of the allegations.
Former Ney staffer Neil Volz took the stand yesterday as the government's key witness in its case against David Safavian, a former General Services Administration (GSA) official.
A five-count grand-jury indictment alleges that Safavian concealed from investigators his assistance to Abramoff, who wanted to acquire part of a government center in Silver Spring, Md., to build a school and to lease a downtown Washington landmark, the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, for his Indian-tribe clients to build a hotel.
Safavian is fighting those charges as the first defendant to face a jury in the influence-peddling scandal surrounding Abramoff.
In his testimony, Volz, who worked with Abramoff after leaving Congress, detailed how the lobbying team received assistance from several Republican lawmakers, including Reps. Ney, Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Don Young (Alaska) and Steven LaTourette (Ohio).
None of the lawmakers has been accused of any wrongdoing, but rather their link to the Safavian case is meant to show how Safavian was giving Abramoff tips on how to use members of Congress to navigate the GSA bureaucracy, according to federal prosecutors.
But Capito said she never knew anything about the White Oak property in Silver Spring that Abramoff was trying to use for a Jewish school. She said that her former chief of staff, Mark Johnson, a close friend of Volz's at the time, called the congressional-affairs office of the GSA to ask about the status of the Silver Spring property. When he got back to Volz with the information that a congressional letter was needed to check on the status of the property, Volz dropped the issue, according to Capito's office.
"I vaguely remember a call from Neil, who was a friend of mine, asking if I could check the status of a project for him," Johnson told The Hill. "It seemed like a routine call. GSA requested a letter and then Neil did not send any draft language for a letter and nothing ever came of it."
He stressed, however, that the issue never rose to the congresswoman's level. "She was never aware of it," he added.
"Representative Capito had absolutely no knowledge of the phone call that purportedly took place between her former chief of staff and Mr. Volz, " said her spokesman Jordan Stoick. "She was not aware of any contact with GSA, nor has she ever consented to her name being used in any way to assist in obtaining information from GSA on this matter."
On the first day of the trial, the prosecution said that even though Capito's name was used in several e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff her name was used by Safavian to pry information from his colleagues on the properties.
Meanwhile, Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said that no piece of evidence shows that Ney took any action on the White Oak property. "The congressman does not recall any conversation about the White Oak issue," and, even in the event that he did, "the fact is that is he did not take any steps" in the legislative process.
Within weeks after the alleged assistance, Safavian, Ney and two of his staff members accompanied Abramoff, Volz and other associates on a golfing trip to the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland.
"There has been quid pro quo alleged, and there has been no quo," Walsh added. "The congressman took no official action on this."
Deborah Setliff, communications director for LaTourette, said, "The congressman is the former chairman of the Transportation Committee's Public Buildings Subcommittee. About four years ago, Chairman LaTourette and Chairman Young signed a letter to the GSA encouraging hub-zone business participation in the redevelopment of the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C. Hub-zone businesses, a type of disadvantaged small business, are routinely included in large GSA projects. The congressman supported small, disadvantaged businesses then and still does today, and the policy is good regardless of who is pushing it. He has never supported turning the Old Post Office building into a hotel and supports legislation making it a women's history museum."
Young's office said it had no comment because it was not aware of Volz's testimony.