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When the Boss Gets Busted: Survival Stories from the Front Lines of Political Scandal
Comments () | Published July 25, 2011
After the Abramoff scandal, Congress created new rules that mandated ethics training for employees of the House and Senate. But when Matthew Parker worked for Bob Ney, there was no required ethics training. Parker says he had no idea what the rules were, which was especially dangerous because at age 20 he was thrust into a fast-paced new world: “I didn’t even know what a lobbyist was before I went to DC.”

Suddenly Abramoff and Neil Volz, who had been Ney’s chief of staff before going to work with Abramoff, were helping to fund a glitzy lifestyle for Parker and his colleagues.

Abramoff’s downtown DC restaurant, Signatures, was a popular hangout for Ney’s staff. Parker says sometimes he and the other aides paid their own tabs, but other times it was murky. “They had these Tuesday sushi nights, and we’d all be there,” he says. “I don’t always know who paid. There was really no true understanding of what was right and what was wrong.” There were also sporting events. Parker once sat with Abramoff in a luxury box at an Orioles game.

These outings would help prosecutors build the case that Ney’s relationship with Abramoff was all about exchanging favors. While Abramoff wined and dined Ney and his staff, Ney reciprocated by putting comments supporting Abramoff’s business dealings into the Congressional Record and pushing legislation to reopen a casino for one of Abramoff’s Indian-tribe clients.

With Ney’s encouragement, Parker took time off to finish college. When he returned to Ney’s staff, he was promoted to a position in the district office in St. Clairsville.

Wherever Ney went, so did Parker. They made the trip between DC and St. Clairsville together regularly. So when Parker sat in on a meeting with Ney and his chief of staff, Will Heaton, about taking a trip with Abramoff to St. Andrews golf course in Scotland, he expected to be invited along. “I’m thinking for sure I’m going to get to fly on a private jet to Scotland,” Parker says.

"I didn't even know what a lobbyist was before I went to DC."     

According to Parker, Ney and Heaton “set out to take that trip because they were friends with Jack Abramoff and Jack Abramoff asked them to go.” Parker says that Ney didn’t want to go on the trip because he was such a bad golfer and that Abramoff’s version of events—which came out years later—claiming that Ney solicited the trip in exchange for helping Abramoff’s clients is false.

By the summer of 2006, with the investigation under way, Ney’s staff started to quit—and disappear. Heaton stopped showing up for work. His behavior was explained months later when it was revealed he had worn a wire to work to help the FBI gather evidence against Ney.

As Parker watched his friends and colleagues depart, he didn’t lose faith in his boss. It had been about a year and a half since Ney had first been linked to the Abramoff scandal, and in January 2006 the lobbyist had pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiring to bribe public officials.

Parker had been promoted again, this time to district director in Ney’s Ohio office. When the Republican party pressured Ney to resign, Parker, then 25, became the congressman’s biggest cheerleader. Ney says that when his longtime pollster told him, “Mickey Mouse could beat you in the primary,” Parker encouraged him to keep fighting. Ney says he saw a lot of himself in his young aide: “He’s not faint of heart.”

Parker threw all of his energy into getting Ney reelected in 2006. “My life was just Bob Ney world,” he says.

Even at home, he couldn’t escape his work, because he and Ney lived across the street from each other. They worked at Ney’s kitchen table a lot—in part, says Parker, because Ney drank during the day and couldn’t get away with doing so in his office.

Ney’s alcoholism worsened as the Abramoff scandal intensified. Parker worked closely with Ney’s scheduler to plan campaign events when Ney was most likely to be sober.

Parker had also adopted unhealthy habits of his own. He had begun smoking and drinking. He slept at most five hours a night.
On a Friday night in June 2006 around 10, while Parker and his wife lay in bed, the phone rang. It was the FBI.

“I just hung up,” Parker says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

He met with a lawyer from the House General Counsel’s office, and the two sat down for a round of questioning by an assistant US Attorney, an FBI agent, and an Interior Department investigator working on the case.

The interview went terribly. Parker says the FBI agent thought he was lying about the motivation behind the Scotland trip and who had paid for meals at Signatures, a Las Vegas trip, and Ohio State football tickets. “We paid for the Ohio State football tickets. I know that I paid my way to go to Vegas. But they didn’t believe me,” Parker says. “They didn’t like my answers because my answers didn’t incriminate Bob.”

Parker says he made matters worse during the questioning by giving “smart aleck” answers. Finally, the investigators stopped the interview and advised Parker to hire a defense attorney.

“The House counsel—he was just a kid my age, and you could see his face turn white as a ghost,” says Parker. “He just looked at me and said, ‘I no longer can be a part of this.’ ”

Within weeks, Parker was subpoenaed for documents as well as to testify before a grand jury. He hired a lawyer who helped him assemble all of the e-mails, phone records, and bank statements necessary to prove he was telling the truth about who had paid for what. House rules mandate that if an employee of the House is subpoenaed, the subpoena has to be read publicly on the House floor. So overnight, Parker went from anonymity to the front page of newspapers.

Despite the legal drama, Ney’s reelection fight slogged on, and a couple of days after Parker was subpoenaed, he was walking in a parade in New Philadelphia, Ohio, with campaign volunteers.

The local paper, the Times-Reporter, had sponsored the float in front of them. Newspaper staff were handing out free copies of the paper. A story about Parker’s subpoena was on the front page.

As he tried to distribute campaign literature, Parker says, some people in the crowd just held the newspaper up in his face: “It was like hand-to-hand combat.”

Next: A mix of flaws and teaching moments

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Posted at 08:00 AM/ET, 07/25/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles