Ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is poised to begin his 30-month prison sentence Thursday, and a former top aide may not be far behind.
William Heaton first earned recognition in February 2002, when at the age of 23 he was hired by Ney to serve as chief of staff on the House Administration Committee — making him one of the youngest chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill.
What could have been the beginning of a promising Hill career has instead put Heaton on a likely path to prison after he pleaded guilty Monday to a federal conspiracy charge in the ongoing corruption probe into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He is the eighth individual to plead guilty or be convicted since the federal investigation began in 2004.
According to the plea agreement, from August 2002 to April 2004, Heaton “joined in a conspiracy involving Ney and others, using mail and interstate wire communications, to deprive the public of the honest services of Heaton, Ney, and Ney’s staff.”
It further states that Heaton and Ney “corruptly solicited and accepted a stream of things of value” from Abramoff, as well as other players in the scandal such as former Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay aides and lobbyists Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, as well as Neil Volz, also a former Ney aide. All of those individuals have also pleaded guilty in the probe.
Heaton, 28, appeared in Washington, D.C.. federal court before Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle on Monday and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. A spokesman for the Justice Department said a sentencing date has not been scheduled, but a status hearing has been planned for May 31.
The former aide was first implicated in the criminal probe in September 2006 in Ney’s plea agreement that then identified Heaton only as “Staffer C.” Heaton admitted Monday that in conjunction with Ney he took part in lavish trips, and accepted gifts and other favors in exchange for working to benefit Abramoff’s lobbying schemes and legislative interests.
That included an infamous August 2002 trip to Scotland that cost more than $160,000, an all-expense-paid gambling trip to New Orleans in May 2003, and a reduced-price trip to Lake George, N.Y., in August 2003.
Heaton also was part of another August 2003 trip to London where Ney accepted $47,000 in free gambling chips from foreign businessman Fouad al-Zayat and Heaton received $5,000 in free chips for Ney’s use. Heaton aided Ney in concealing the source of the money, and was complicit when Ney gave the $5,000 to another aide on the trip to take through U.S. Customs at Dulles International Airport.
The other aide is identified only as “another staff member” in Heaton’s plea agreement but knowledgeable sources have identified the staffer as Chris Otillio, Ney’s former legislative director.
Those sources said Otillio has been cooperating with the Justice Department’s investigation, and he has not been charged in the probe.
Heaton also admitted to accepting “numerous” meals and drinks from Abramoff, including an open bar tab policy at the Abramoff-owned Signatures Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, which subsequently closed down, as well as tickets to sporting and events and concerts at the MCI Center, now known as the Verizon Center, and Camden Yards.
In exchange, Heaton worked with Ney on behalf of Abramoff’s legislative interests, such as inserting amendments into legislation to benefit Abramoff’s tribal clients. He also worked as a liaison to the executive branch to aid Abramoff clients’ interests and met with his clients to enhance his lobbying practice.
In the 10-page plea agreement, the Justice Department has agreed to file a motion for a “downward departure,” at the time of sentencing that could result in significantly less jail time for Heaton if he continues to cooperate with the investigation.
One knowledgeable source sympathetic to Heaton said the former top aide was largely a victim in Ney and Abramoff’s criminal enterprise.
“He was absolutely a victim in this,” the source said. “Will was promoted from ‘driver’ to ‘chief of staff.’ Ney bypassed more senior people because he didn’t want a chief of staff, he wanted a yes-person, someone who wouldn’t question him.”
The source added: “Will was a 23-year- old kid, by his own admission, he wasn’t qualified for the job. He’s a very good, very religious, genuine person who got dragged into a manipulative situation. There’s no excuse for it, but you would think this guy is some kind of criminal mastermind when regardless of what’s said, Heaton is a straight arrow.”
Heaton is a former House page and a 2000 graduate of the College of William & Mary. He briefly worked as an assistant in then-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) floor office before heading to Ney’s office in September 2001.
He also is recently married.
Matthew Murray contributed to this report.