Bob Ney was a powerful Congressman (R-Ohio) brought down — and sent to jail — by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He is featured in “Casino Jack,” the new documentary about what happened. He now has a daily show on talk radio. He spoke to me about his decision to cooperate with the film and what he has learned.
Was this a chance for you to tell your side? Is that why you agreed to participate?
At first, I said I wasn’t going to do it. When I got out of what I call the Bush Housing Program, the federal prison at Morgantown, I had a lot of offers to do different shows and said no to them all, including this. And then I looked at [director] Alex Gibney’s work, the Enron movie and “Taxi to the Dark Side.” I had lived in Iran and in Saudi Arabia and it’s a painful story, but it needed to be told. I met Zena Barakat and agreed to do the IFC story she wanted me to do. She told me Neil Votlz was going to do this film and that it was going to be more than the story of Abramoff, about what’s going on now, where does this lead. So, I think it’s a way for me to give back and second it’s a way of healing for myself and third, hopefully something will come out of it to make some changes.
What kind of change would make a difference? Public financing of elections? Is that the only way to keep the corrupting influence of political contributions out of government?
I didn’t before I resigned from Congress, and I chaired House Administration and oversaw election law. I thought we just needed full transparency. Then we get caught up in the waylay of “if you don’t go to Scotland,” “if you don’t eat at Jack’s restaurant,” the problem is solved. The swamp is drained. But the swamp was drained and re-filled. There’s a lot of good people on the Hill in both parties and I’ve been treated better than I deserve to be. But a lot hasn’t changed. Maybe on the surface it has changed. Maybe nobody’s been indicted. But that doesn’t mean the system has changed. There are still quotas, money from the leaders, more money than ever, and John McCain’s reforms made no difference. It leads me to the thought that there’s got to be something better. We can take care of the ethics, but the money flow is different, and I would now lean toward some type of public financing.
What are you proudest of from your time in Congress?
The help America Vote Act with Stenny Hoyer made it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Some of the housing initiatives I worked on with Maxine Waters, I’m proudest of that. And we tried to make the Capital a better place to be. We tried to make it safe and secure, a better working environment, following 9/11 and the anthrax, secure and safe but still usable.
Tell me about Jack Abramoff and what his motivations were, his judgment.
I think he was very idealistic. He got waylaid somewhere along the line as can happen to anyone. He had a chameleon-like appeal. He was the kind of guy where you had to watch what you had to say in front of him, an Orthodox Jew, so you wouldn’t suspect he would go too far with things. I think he believes some of the things were very justified, people tend to do that. “I’m doing this and that on the Hill, very important things, so certain things are okay.” In his mind I’m not sure that to this day he might not believe he did many things wrong.
That was a shocker. The fact of his religious nature, what he had in his heart, with his faith, he was always involved with some kind of charity. When I saw some of the emails, I thought, “Oh, my God,” that was a shocker.
People might think that a political contribution can make a representative change a vote, but that isn’t the way it works, is it?
In this business, whether it’s Jack Abramoff or the people currently on the Hill, it’s a buying of access. Is there a buying of a vote? There was not one time when Neil or Jack and I exchanged a “I’ll do that and you do this.” If there was, I would have been charged with bribery. That’s when you have $90,000 cash in your freezer. I’m not saying what I did was right. But he didn’t buy my vote with a dinner. There’s a buying of access, though. It goes in multiples. Leaders of both parties give money to members. They’ll say, “You’re really causing a lot of heartburn for us. Those guys have been good to us, help us out.” And you think, “I want to be a committee chairman.” I’ve got to get re-elected. He could help me raise $100,000. If you don’t go along, you might not get that help or they could give it to your opponent. Lobbyists don’t buy votes, but they buy access.
One of the most troubling parts of the movie is when you put statements into the Congressional record in support of SunCruz and critical of its original owner, Gus Boulis, at the request of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon, onetime communications director for Congressman Tom Delay. It was a favor to someone who gave you a $10,000 contribution.
Neil and I talked, and Scanlon came to Neil. Though Jack badmouthed Scanlon all the time. I didn’t think they were even friends. We had no idea how entangled they were. They wanted something in the Congressional Record. We read it. So what? We put it in there. The Attorney General of Florida bad-mouthed Boulis. So we put it in there. We put it in again when Boulis stepped out.
I had no idea that Abramoff was using that to try to leverage something. I don’t think Neil did either. I trusted him. But we were dumb enough to do it twice. This is the biggest criticism I have of myself. I should have said, “What the hell is going on? Something doesn’t smell right. Something doesn’t feel right.” And then we read Boulis had been shot and killed. I was furious! Neil was furious. What are we into?
What can we do about the corrupting effect of money in politics?
A corporation is not a citizen. The Citizens United decision went too far. But I never liked the John McCain approach, come on. But McCain was touchy about his Keating problem and was going to clean the system up. If he had that problem today I’d have been keeping my bunk at Morgantown warm for him. Citizens United could be an opportunity for the Hill to make some changes but maybe not. They might close a loophole, but they have to keep their campaigns going.
Who are the most significant sources of money in politics?
Financial services is a very powerful group. I’ll give Pharma credit. When they buy access they buy it lock, stock, and barrel. Congress, the Senate, the White House, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor. They get to them all.