Hill Corruption Probe Is in High Gear
With his youthful face and tan-colored suit, Will Heaton barely looked his 29 years. But as the former Capitol Hill staffer stepped up to the wooden podium during his sentencing hearing today in D.C. federal court, he acknowledged that his youth hardly excused his actions.
"I failed to make moral and just choices," said Heaton, who pleaded guilty to one felony count for accepting unlawful gifts from lobbyists during his tenure as chief of staff to convicted former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican.
Heaton may be the youngest person so far ensnared in the Justice Department's probe stemming from the activities of the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Yet in many ways his sentencing represented one of the more vexing questions raised by the unfolding investigation: How could someone so universally described as trustworthy, loyal, and idealistic have become a pawn in the lobbying scandal?
But there are likely to be many more questions—and perhaps even a few answers—in the months ahead. Washington defense lawyers expect that more prosecutions are coming. Already, the Justice Department has charged 13 individuals, including a member of Congress, a top Interior Department official, and a senior White House adviser, in matters relating to Abramoff. And other members of Congress have come under public scrutiny in a variety of other probes related to the congressional appropriations process and related government contracts. In recent months the Justice Department's public-integrity division, which is spearheading the inquiries. has also beefed up its staff.
In regard to Abramoff, lawyers say one current focus of scrutiny is Rep. John Doolittle, a California Republican. Earlier this year, Doolittle's former chief of staff and onetime Abramoff associate Kevin Ring resigned from his lobbying shop, Barnes & Thornburg, raising questions about whether he now faces criminal liability. And in April the home consulting business of Doolittle's wife, Julie, was raided. Her business, Sierra Dominion Financial Services Inc., has come under fire because it was hired to work for Abramoff.
Julie Doolittle's bookkeeping work for another lobbyist—Edwin Buckham, former chief of staff to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican—has also caught public attention, especially because Buckham's former lobbying shop, Alexander Strategy Group, worked closely with Abramoff. And many lawyers wonder if Buckham's activities will lead to greater focus on DeLay, who has already been indicted in an unrelated campaign finance investigation in his home state.
But the cloud over lawmakers—and their associates—is not limited to those connected to Abramoff. An unusually large number of congressional officials have come under investigation recently for their ties to lobbyists and business leaders: Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, pleaded guilty in November 2005 to taking more than $2 million in bribes in connection with several defense companies. Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, is fighting a 16-count indictment on charges that he solicited bribes for himself and his family and obstructed justice in connection with a Nigerian business. And the pleas of a cadre of Alaska state lawmakers and businessmen have pulled two federal lawmakers from the state into potential trouble: Republican Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, whose home was raided late last month.
For now, the Heaton conviction has, once again, highlighted the all-too-cozy relationships that have developed between lobbyists and politicians in Washington. Because of Heaton's extensive cooperation with the feds—including secretly taping damning conversations with Ney—the judge gave him a light sentence: 100 hours of community service, two years' probation, and a $5,000 fine.
But whatever Heaton's apparent virtues—and Judge Ellen Huvelle was certainly moved by the dozens of effusive letters of support she received on his behalf—Huvelle was nonetheless disappointed by Heaton's lack of judgment. "If we can't find people who can stand up to power ... then we will have a serious problem on our hands."