Republican Culture Of Corruption In The Spotlight As Former Congressman Tells All In New Book

When Robert “Freedom Fries” Ney left Congress disgraced in 2007, he was found guilty of using his position to grant favors to Jack Abramoff’s lobbying team. In exchange, he was given free trips to the Super Bowl, Northern Marianas Islands, and Scotland, along with the use of luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts. This was on top of multiple meals and other perks from Jack Abramoff’s group. He served 30 months in a federal penitentiary, followed by two years probation. Having been through so much, he decided to share his story in a book titled Sideswiped: Lessons Learned Courtesy of the Hit Men of Capitol Hill. Inside it you find the story of a congressman on the take within the Republican dominated House of Representatives during the early part of the last decade. And the picture he paints includes a very large target on some very, very big names in the Republican Party today.

The book’s prologue speaks of his incarceration, of how his first attempt to write was effectively stolen from him; of his battle with alcoholism (last drink was September 13, 2006). It also speaks about his perception that the same system which he had been a part of, a system of abuse of power and corruption, was still in place, more powerful and prevalent than ever. He views his book as a way to atone for his actions of the past, to the people he once represented in Congress, and to the people of the United States who were often times the victims of his actions. His words throughout the book appear genuine; reflective of the desire to tell his side, not to validate, but to atone. They say that confession is a way to clean the soul; if that is the case, Bob Ney has done a heck of a lot of scrubbing.

Ney’s involvement in corruption within the party came early. Being selected by the Ohio state party in 1976 to be a national delegate for Gerald Ford at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, forced him to be “ethically bound” to support Ford, despite his delegate seat having been won by Ronald Reagan. It was there, as a delegate, that Mr. Ney first met Karl Rove, staying with him for the convention. Ney cites multiple accounts of corruption and the abuse of power by numerous Republican politicians during the convention, a pattern which is repeated throughout the book.

But when we get to more current times, when we find him facing people still in power, the pattern of corruption and abuse of power is so well entrenched in the narrative, it must have been viewed as just how things worked in the Republican Party. His jobs were gained due to corruption, or the abuse of political power. There were keywords to use. In one event, he quotes Phil Hamilton after he put down one of these keywords on a job application:

This man was sent to me and on the back of his application says James A. Rhodes. Find a job, create a job, or shit a job, I do not care which, but do it now. [Source]

James A. Rhodes, of course, is the former governor of Ohio who sent in the National Guard that ultimately killed the students at Kent State University in 1970. This abuse of power was to benefit Bob Ney and, in the future, he and his colleagues in Congress would do the same.

Bob was one of the numerous freshmen Congressmen who came into office with Newt Gingrich’s 1994 push. He was recruited because, as an Ohio State Senator, he had political position to help get Newt Gingrich’s brother-in-law a job the year before. The recruitment of Ney was a payback for that.

When John Boehner stepped into the picture, with his loss of the prized Communications Chair position, Ney makes the simple statement that, upon losing the vote, Boehner retreated to his office and proceeded to break into “all-out wailing.” Then the book continues, saying that the reason Boehner lost the position was due to the fact that, instead of being the media darling the Communications Chair is supposed to be, he spent his time golfing, drinking and fundraising, not for other candidates, but for his own re-election. It was a game to him, and he delighted in his corruption, famously correcting one media question about which exact lobbyist’s private jet he was riding in. Boehner was so deep in the tobacco lobby’s pocket that one tobacco company, Barclay, gave the congressman a huge stash of cigarettes to give away to other members of congress. There was also the restaurant, Cantina Marina, which would give Boehner and his friends their meals for free. Boehner even used such free drinks and political connections to cover up extra-marital affairs during nights he had a bit too much to judge correctly, with Ney detailing one such situation quite specifically.

Mr. Ney paints a picture of Boehner as begin in the pocket of fat cat tobacco lobbyists, enjoying the high life on their dime. Boehner is spoken of as someone who wanted to kill programs, any programs, to help the poor, particularly poor children. One effort, to kill Head Start, had Boehner, along with then House Majority Leader Tom Delay, directly threatening Ney in a move backed by the Bush Administration, which unleashed Chief of Staff Andy Card on him. The conversation, as cited by former Congressman Ney went as follows:

NEY: I have always supported Head Start over my entire career. I don’t like this vote, and I just cannot help you.
CARD: Let me make this clear. Boehner said you were a vote ‘for us’ and we are holding you to that.
NEY: I don’t know where Boehner got that from. I can rethink this, but I don’t like it and I’m sure I will not change my mind.
CARD: You are a fucking liar!
NEY: Fuck you Andy, and your idiotic Administration. [Source]

Boehner continued to attempt to strong-arm Bob Ney over the legislation, and he found opportunities drying up for him over his refusal to vote to kill off educational programs for children.

Things began to unravel personally for Bob Ney after that. He had started to grow a spine, refusing to pass out checks to members of Congress by Diebold the way John Boehner had previously done on big tobacco’s behalf. He was over his head and, on some level, recognized that. He was still corrupt, but that corruption had limits, and it appears voting integrity and children were his limits. But during the interaction, the man behind the push was the same man as before, John Boehner, who now used lobbyists to pass along these checks to other politicians he considered expendable, so he would not be caught handing them out again.

Ney also detailed meetings between Jack Abramoff-tied lobbyists, particularly Dave Distefano, and the White House, through Karl Rove’s right hand man, Barry Jackson. Details of meetings, a total of 345 are listed, are given between Abramoff’s lobbying group and the Bush Administration. Talk of blackmail, referred to by Mr. Ney as “Mutual Assured Destruction,” for campaign contributions was rampant. Implications of impropriety between congress members and lobbyists, or their hired ‘help,” circulated through the piece.

Due to his refusal to surrender all of his scruples, Bob Ney was effectively thrown under the bus when it came to the Jack Abramoff scandal. While multiple members of congress and their staff took advantage of the St. Andrew’s golf excursions, it was Bob Ney and his excursion which was effectively thrown under the bus.

Bob Ney also admits his wrongdoings: his ignoring of protocol, of his overlooking of procedure. He paints a picture of a culture where corruption was everywhere, and everyone was looking for an angle to one-up someone else in the battle to the top of the food chain. While he does go into detail on possible voter fraud, the events in question happened after he was in jail, and so are based in part through inference and indirect observation combined with his own history.

Bob Ney did a lot of bad things. But what he did that was the unforgivable sin was to refuse and surrender what few morals he still held. For refusing to rewrite the Helping America Vote Act (Alberto Gonzalez wrote that Bob Ney introduced an amendment given to him by Jack Abramoff to the measure, but checking out this claim, there was no such amendment introduced) to the benefit of Abramoff, he became the fall guy, the scapegoat alongside Tom Delay. Bob Ney had committed the cardinal sin of telling the powers that be “no” and when the pressure to prove that they were strong on corruption, to hide their own corruption, came along, they knew just who to implicate.

But before the end, when Alberto Gonzales, as the head of the Justice Department, had been putting the pressure on Bob Ney for 18 months with false accusations, attempts to pin other politicians actions on him, and other pressure, John Boehner had a deal offer for Bob Ney:

Bob, we realize what you have been going through and have been talking about your race. We know you are not a man of money and I am told one of your children has some medical issues. So I would like to make you a deal.

If you resign in the next day, I will personally guarantee you a job comparable to what you are making, and raise legal defense money for you that should bury all this Justice Department problem for you. [Source]

The GOP had been putting on the pressure for him to conform, to gut Head Start and hurt or eliminate the right to vote, and when it was clear that he would not yield, they offered him a poison pill deal, to resign. Bob Ney confirmed it with other congressional staffers as well, the offer was genuine.

Bob Ney took the deal.

Boehner promptly forgot about the deal. They left Bob Ney out to dry, bankrupting him in the process, and once the lawyer money ran out, he was forced to take the plea deal. Boehner had won, destroying the man who refused him.

Bob Ney is no hero, no saint. He is a man, like any other. He did some good, he did some wrong. He was not the most corrupt member of congress, nor the least. He enjoyed free meals, and partook of lobbyist funded trips. He was used as a fall guy to protect those who were far more corrupt than he. And the central figure of his fall, the men who engineered it, are John Boehner and Karl Rove. Checking the facts presented in this book, one can confirm every piece of Bob Ney’s tale, from bill amendments to paperwork filing. It rings of truth. It is a view into the inner workings of smoke-filled rooms and corridors of Capital Hill. A realm of corruption, manipulation, false friends and a fight to the top. It is a dog eat dog environment, and Bob Ney was one of the lucky ones.

He left with his humanity intact.


Nathaniel Downes is the son of a former state representative of New Hampshire, now living in Seattle Washington.

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