When former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, left Congress in disgrace and under a cloud of scandal, there were so many folks he wanted to blame for his downfall that he jokes “I could have computerized my resentment list.”
He was angry at many of his fellow Republicans, intimidated by the cost of defending himself, irate at the zeal of federal prosecutors, and in shock at the collapse of the life he had so carefully built.
But now, in the first in-depth interview he has given since pleading guilty and serving time in federal prison, Ney said he has moved beyond those resentments – with only one notable exception in his own party.
In a 70-minute phone interview with National Journal Daily from Dharamsala, India, where he is studying with the Dalai Lama, the former House Administration Committee chairman talked candidly about his drinking and his ethical lapses and offered advice to current members of Congress on how they can avoid his fate.
Ney, now 56, looks back on his six terms in the House with pride for the work he did for his constituents and the election-reform measures he championed. But he is realistic enough to know that it is his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff that will be remembered.
“If somebody doesn’t take graffiti on my tombstone and put the name ‘Jack Abramoff’ on it, feel free to go do it for them,” he said.
Ney pleaded guilty to one charge of making false statements and one charge of “honest services fraud” for accepting gifts, trips, meals, and drinks from Abramoff. Ney said the decision to strike a plea bargain was driven primarily by the daunting cost of mounting a full legal defense. “If I had had money, I probably would have fought it,” he said, putting the estimated cost at about $3 million.
Despite the plea, he bristles at any suggestion that dealings with Abramoff were a major part of his time in Washington. “People can believe this or not. Jack Abramoff never said to me at one single point in time ever, ‘Do this and I’ll do that for you,’” said Ney.
Despite his lingering feelings about the charges, he now casts his 17 months in prison as the best thing that ever happened to him and as almost life-saving.
“Prison gave me a chance to take a breath,” he said. “On a personal level, prison helped me because ... I lost weight,” he added. “But it also helped me to clear my mind. I haven’t had a drink since September 14th of 2006. So it helped me on a personal level to readjust, refocus, and, I guess you could say, reinvent.”
Ney is very careful not to blame his heavy drinking for his downfall, believing that too many politicians and celebrities blame everything on alcohol when they get caught. But there is no question that his drinking greased his path downward.
When told that some of his former aides said that they could smell alcohol on him as early as 10 a.m. some days, he does not dispute it.
“I am not by any stretch of the imagination blaming it all on alcohol,” he said. “I am admitting that we got careless. I am admitting we didn’t dot all the i’s and cross the t’s. I’m also admitting that there were times I didn’t care who bought the dinner. ... The other thing is my judgment due to alcohol was not in focus with where it needed to be.”
Ney paid a huge personal price for that lack of focus.
His marriage collapsed, and Ney recalls that by the time he entered prison, “I had lost every single dime I owned. Everything was gone ... the house, savings account – everything.”
When he was released early from prison for completing alcohol rehabilitation, he was quite nervous the first time he returned to his old haunts at the Capitol. “I started to pull out my old ID ... and the policeman looked at me and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Chairman. Welcome back,’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘oh, man.’”
Among the members who sought him out on one visit was Rep. Zack Space, the Democrat who took his seat. His cordiality and decency toward him left Ney torn when Space lost reelection to Republican Bob Gibbs earlier this month.
“He was very courteous to me. I like Bob Gibbs, but it wasn’t one of those things where it made my day and I did cartwheels in India,” said Ney. His feelings toward other members are tempered by the way they treated him when he got in trouble. “I didn’t expect anybody to take a bullet for me, but, man, some of them turned the gun on me before the Justice Department did,” he said.
In the entire interview, Ney voiced criticism only once. He will never forget the way then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and his staff treated him. “His people executed me before I had a chance to breathe. That astounded me,” he said. But he immediately pivoted from this criticism to praise all the people who stood by him, from family to friends to other members. And he offered advice to those who still are in Congress. “Trust your gut,” he said. “If it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t smell right, just trust your gut.” He stressed that members must take responsibility for their actions.
“I don’t blame Jack Abramoff. I don’t blame [my] staffers. I don’t blame his staffers,” he said, adding, “I’ve met some of the most amazing people I could ever meet in my lifetime and there are still a lot of them up on the Hill. But the big thing is, just don’t lose focus. Don’t let the thinking be, ‘Well, it’s just a little thing.’ Little things become big things and big things can become felonies.”
And there is one other thing he added – “Maybe lay off some of the booze at receptions all over the Hill.”
This article appears in the November 19, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.