TOPICS > Politics

Legislative Aide Admits He Tried to Illegally Influence His Boss for Abramoff

May 9, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

Judy Woodruff has our Abramoff update.

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special
Correspondent: The list of former Jack Abramoff associates who have pleaded guilty
to criminal corruption charges has now grown to four. The latest came yesterday
when Neil Volz, a one-time chief of staff to Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney,
admitted in court that he tried illegally to influence his former boss on Abramoff’s

Guilty pleas also have come from two former staffers of ex-Majority
Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

So where do those pleas, plus Abramoff’s own
admission of guilt back in January, take the federal investigation into the congressional
lobbying scandal? For that, we are joined by James Grimaldi of the Washington
Post, who, along with two of his colleagues, recently won a Pulitzer Prize for
their investigative reporting on Jack Abramoff.

We’re also joined by Amy
Walter from the Cook Political Report, who has been watching the election-year
fallout from the Abramoff affair and other alleged congressional misdeeds.

Amy Walter, James Grimaldi, thank you both.

State of the investigation

JUDY WOODRUFF: James, to you first. With this latest guilty plea, where does this leave the whole Abramoff investigation?

JAMES GRIMALDI, The Washington Post: Well, as we reported last fall, we think there are at least a half-dozen lawmakers who may still be under scrutiny. And with every additional Abramoff aide who comes into the picture and pleads guilty, you may have the possibility of even more lawmakers.

You don't know what deals or what schemes those particular people who have pled might be able to provide information to the government in order to just sort of build on the case. So, you know, in many ways, we're just getting close to the end of the beginning when it comes to the Abramoff scandal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What makes you and others think that other members of Congress may be involved?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, when you look at the records, the people who have been subpoenaed, some of the e-mails that have been released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and many of the stories that we investigated last year, we see that there are up to half-a-dozen people.

We've named some of them in some of our stories, and we've talked to many of the lawmakers' lawyers. We know that they've subpoenaed certain pieces of information, so we gather it from the public record largely and through interviews.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mostly Republicans? Some Democrats?

JAMES GRIMALDI: In the Abramoff case right now, we only know of Republicans. There is certainly a potential for Democrats.

Gifts for Ney

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk quickly about Bob Ney, the congressman from Ohio. That's who Neil Volz worked for. Does the fact that Neil Volz has pled guilty now, is that a problem? How much of a problem is it for Congressman Ney?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, Neil Volz was very close to Bob Ney. He was his confidante. Bob Ney hired him out of college at Ohio State when Ney was in the legislature and then brought him to Washington. Then, after he left, after he'd worked for Bob Ney in Congress for seven years, he then went to -- Mr. Volz went to work for Jack Abramoff.

He's now admitted that he gave gifts to Congressman Ney when he worked for Jack Abramoff and he accepted gifts from Jack Abramoff, as did Mr. Ney. You know, the case is going to get difficult, in terms of whether they're proving bribery or they're going for this honest-to-dishonest services clause in the legal findings.

A bribery case requires a quid pro quo, a specific act in exchange for a gift, whereas the government seems to be going for a stream of things of value in exchange for a stream of actions, and that might be a somewhat novel approach in this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, James is saying so far mostly Republicans. There could be some Democrats, but right now mostly a headache for the Republican Party?

AMY WALTER, Cook Political Report: Well, it's interesting. In the paper today, in the Washington Post, you look at the front page and the story is about Bob Ney, but flip on the inside and there's a story about Democrat Bill Jefferson from Louisiana.

There have also been stories in other papers now about another Democrat, Alan Mollohan from West Virginia; both now are being investigated on ethics issues. Interestingly enough, Mollohan is the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, agreed to step down off the Ethics Committee. It really doesn't help your case when you are on the Ethics Committee and have to step off, in terms of making this a Republican culture of corruption, as Democrats are trying to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they are saying that.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

Washington ethics

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have the Democrats right and left, all over the map, saying: Look, generic polls, these so-called -- these polls, where you ask people, "Would you rather have a Republican or a Democrat representing you in Congress leadership, the majority in Congress?" And without a name attached, people say, for the last few months, have given a pretty distinctive advantage to the Democrats. But...

AMY WALTER: Right, but I think it's absolutely right that Democrats right now are going into this election with a very strong tailwind, and a lot of that is about the president's low approval ratings, voters feeling overwhelmingly pessimistic about the direction of the country.

The fact that Congress right now does have a 23 percent approval rating certainly doesn't help. And, yes, it's controlled by Republicans. And, yes, the Jack Abramoff scandal is focusing almost exclusively on Republicans.

I think the problem, however, when you also look at polls, you ask voters, "Well, who do you think is responsible for these ethics problems in Washington? What party is most responsible?" And, overwhelmingly, voters say it's both parties. It's not Democrats; it's not Republicans; they're all responsible for this.

So I think the danger for Democrats -- first of all, they have some of their own members, as I mentioned, in ethical hot water. So that makes it more difficult to make this case.

The other part is that voters right now don't want -- I think the reason the approval ratings are so low is that they don't want to continue to see this partisan bickering, this back and forth and pointing fingers. And I think it's dangerous for Democrats to try to build a case for changing Congress simply on this idea about culture of corruption. I think the overall message of change works for Democrats, but it has to be much broader.

Issues on voters' minds

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, it's a number of issues that are going to be on voters' minds...

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... when they go to vote in November, from the economy to Iraq, gas prices, and so forth.

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's not just going to be...

AMY WALTER: It's not just going to be -- I think that running simply on that issue is not going to help Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you step back, James Grimaldi, and whether you're Bob Ney or someone else, what are you worried about at this point? I mean, where do you expect the next shoe to drop?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, I think we've got a trial coming up with a GSA, Government Services Administration official later this month, David Safavian. We also have another government official in the Interior Department, Steven Griles, who is under investigation. I think what you're going to see is an unfolding investigation at the Justice Department.

We don't know how long it's going to last, though. You know, there's lots of predictions here and there about whether, you know, any of this will come in election time or not. I think you've got a long haul to go; it could go on for several years.

And, you know, any politicians who may be expecting indictments or other developments in order to advance their particular political agendas, I can tell you the public integrity division is not one that is looking at the electoral calendar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Amy, if you're a member of Congress and you're worried about your party looking bad on this ethical question, what do you say to the voters to help yourself? Is there anything?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think what we're going to see in this election is incumbents, as well as challengers, trying to distance themselves as far as they can from Washington, really trying to isolate themselves from here, running -- even when you're an insider, you're going to brag about what you've been doing as an outsider.

So no one's -- I don't think you're going to see a whole lot of folks running on the idea that being an insider is what voters right now are looking for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, and all this on May the 9th. We've got a lot more time to go.

AMY WALTER: A long way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, James Grimaldi, thank you both.