Neys former chief of staff agrees to plead guilty

William Heaton, former chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud, according to court documents filed yesterday.

Heaton’s plea agreement comes just days before the former lawmaker will report to federal prison in West Virginia for corruption charges. Ney is scheduled to enter prison March 1. 

According to the plea agreement, Heaton could receive up to five years in jail and a fine of $250,000.

Heaton has become the second member of Ney’s staff to be ensnared in the scandal involving imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who bribed Ney and his staff with lavish trips and gifts in return for official favors. Heaton’s predecessor, Neil Volz, was sentenced last year for conspiracy charges.

According to court documents, Heaton, who began working for Ney in September 2001 as an executive assistant, rose quickly to the position of chief of staff when his co-conspirator Volz left the position to work for Abramoff in February 2002.

Heaton’s involvement in the Abramoff scandal spanned from August 2002 until August 2004, according to the documents.

Over those two years, Heaton accepted numerous favors from Abramoff and other members of his lobbying firm, including a now-infamous all-expense-paid golf trip to Scotland. Heaton was also was one of several recipients of a number of other trips abroad, concert and sporting-event tickets, meals and gambling chips, all taken with full knowledge the gifts were in exchange for official favors from Ney. 

During one of those trips, Heaton and another staffer helped Ney conceal $5,000 brought into the country through customs and stored the money in a safe inside Ney’s congressional office. Court documents said Heaton  “open[ed] the safe as requested so that Ney could make repeated withdrawals.”

Heaton knowingly falsified his 2002 and 2003 financial disclosure forms and assisted Ney in misrepresenting his travel disclosure form about the receipt of gifts from Abramoff and others.

“The FBI has made combating public corruption at all levels of government one of its top investigative priorities, because American taxpayers deserve honesty from public officials and employees,” said Assistant Director Chip Burrus of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.  “No corrupt public servant is exempt from FBI scrutiny. We will continue to pursue those like Will Heaton who sell their integrity at the public’s expense.”

Heaton’s guilty plea comes well after three other former staffers, Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy and Neil Volz, pled guilty for their roles in the Abramoff scandal.

The case against Ney was first mentioned in Scanlon’s indictment. In that filing, prosecutors singled out Ney, mentioned then only as “Representative No. 1,” as the target of Scanlon’s illegal lobbying, asserting that the lawmaker accepted gifts, including the 2002 golf trip to Scotland and regular meals at Abramoff’s restaurant, “in exchange for a series of official acts and influence.”

The staffers, however, all appear to be cooperating with prosecutors. The sentencing dates or status conferences for each continue to be postponed, a bad sign for other lawmakers or staffers close to the scandal who could become targets of the probe.

Under a plea bargain entered more than a year ago, Scanlon, Abramoff’s business partner and former aide to ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. After being postponed several times, last week his status conference was reset again for June 5.

Scanlon has agreed to pay back $19.6 million in kickbacks he received from the fees Abramoff charged Indian tribes and faces anywhere between four years and three months to five years and three months in prison.

Volz, a former senior aide to Ney and a lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy in early May last year. In late January, prosecutors agreed to defer his status conference to April 26.

Volz faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But his sentence could be lessened, depending on how much he cooperates with prosecutors.

Rudy, a former DeLay aide, a colleague of Abramoff’s and a lobbyist at Alexander Strategy Group, pled guilty March 31, 2006 to one count of conspiracy. His status conference was originally scheduled for July 11, 2006, but has been postponed several times, most recently in early January. It is now set for April 19.

Rudy could serve a maximum of five years in jail, but his cooperation already has helped to whittle that down to a range of two years to two years and six months.