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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

Lobbyist's clients made contributions that reached Ohio

BY JOSHUA BOAK
AND JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

A year before he tried to unseat U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Larry Kaczala traveled to Washington. He studied 12 hours a day in a Republican crash-course on campaigning. And he made a friend: U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, from southeastern Ohio.

Mr. Kaczala and Mr. Ney walked through the Capital's downtown one October night in 2003, Mr. Kaczala said. The congressman promised to help with the upcoming campaign - help that would later include organizing a nearly $200,000 fund-raiser and sending Mr. Kaczala $5,000 from Mr. Ney's political action committee. "He said I reminded him a lot of him," Mr. Kaczala recalled this week.

Mr. Kaczala, Lucas County auditor, said he has paid little attention to Mr. Ney's fortunes since losing to Miss Kaptur in 2004. But Ohio Republicans can expect to hear a lot about him from their Democratic opponents in the months to come.

Mr. Ney, of Heath, Ohio, is a central figure in a scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was indicted last week for tax evasion, mail fraud, and bribery of public officials. A plea bargain and guilty pleas followed.

Political analysts say the scandal clouds Mr. Ney's political future and could rain down on Republicans across Ohio - and on members of both parties nationwide - in this year's elections.

The question for Mr. Kaczala and others is how many politicians could get wet in the expected downpour. Mr. Ney routed campaign donations to Republican candidates across the country with the assistance of $31,500 in contributions from Abramoff's clients.

Congressional hearings last year revealed that Abramoff swindled the Indian tribes he represented as a lobbyist, receiving kickbacks from the public relations firm to which he steered them.

A Washington grand jury indicted Abramoff last week for tax evasion, mail fraud, and bribery of public officials. He faces related charges in Florida. Plea bargains followed the indictments. Identified as "Representative No. 1," Mr. Ney is the lone congressman mentioned in either of the plea agreements.

As chairman of the House Administrative Committee, which manages the Capitol Building's operations, Mr. Ney had the authority to swing contracts and legislation for Abramoff's clients. And in return for a 2002 Scottish golf vacation, Super Bowl tickets, campaign donations, and meals at a posh restaurant, the plea agreement says that Mr. Ney and his staff did exactly that, toiling for Indian tribes and companies located outside of his Ohio congressional district.

By making statements in the Congressional Record initially drafted by one of Abramoff's colleagues, the congressman pressured a Florida gaming company to sell its casino ships to one of the lobbyist's clients.

Mr. Ney also helped a wireless company represented by Abramoff snag a contract to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the Capitol Building. Throughout 2002, Mr. Ney met with Indian tribes from Texas and California who hired Abramoff's firm. He pledged to introduce legislation tailored for the gambling interests of each tribe. Mr. Ney even spent part of an official 2003 visit to Russia attempting to influence the process of obtaining a U.S. travel visa for one of Abramoff's clients.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Mr. Ney, maintains that the congressman did nothing "improper or illegal."

Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said Mr. Ney's problems threaten Republicans statewide because they comport with a larger "context in Ohio of scandal among Republicans."

That includes federal charges of political money laundering against former Maumee coin-dealer Tom Noe and the criminal ethics convictions of Gov. Bob Taft.

"In some ways, all these things fit together," Mr. Beck said. "They don't necessarily implicate the same people. But there obviously is a focus here on the party that is in power across the board" in Columbus and Washington.

The congressional leadership's fund-raising methods spread dollars, indirectly, from Abramoff to Mr. Kaczala's campaign in northwest Ohio.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff's clients have donated $4.4 million to elected federal officials since 1999, distributing money to Republicans and Democrats alike. The money was typically sent down to congressional hopefuls via political action committees. In the case of Mr. Ney's PAC, American Liberty, contributions from Abramoff's clients were commingled with donations from banks and hamburger chain Wendy's International.

In 2004, Mr. Kaczala collected $5,000 each, the maximum possible, from the PACs of six Ohio congressmen who received donations from Abramoff's clients, including Mr. Ney and Rep. Michael Oxley (R., Findlay).

The chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, Chris Redfern, said last week that Mr. Ney could pose an electoral problem for Republicans statewide "as soon as he's indicted."

A spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party said the allegations against Mr. Ney are serious and that if there is any evidence of wrongdoing, "we encourage prosecution to the full extent of the law."

But the spokesman, John McClelland, said allegations against Mr. Ney and Mr. Noe won't hurt GOP candidates this year. "This election in 2006 should be about moving the state forward," he said, "not the past."

Mr. Kaczala is up for re-election this year, though he would not comment on his plans. If he does run again, he said he doubted his Ney contacts would hurt him.

"Democrats have enough on their plate when it comes to how they raise money," Mr. Kaczala said.

Blade staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Contact Joshua Boak at: jboak@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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