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Ney trips to London drawing renewed scrutiny
[February 10, 2006]

Ney trips to London drawing renewed scrutiny

(Copley News Service Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)WASHINGTON - Rep. Bob Ney once described himself as a hardliner on Iran, enthusiastically supporting sanctions that isolated the country and its radical Islamic rulers.

Over the years, though, his stance changed; he came to favor more engagement with the country where he had once lived and taught English. In the winter of 2003, Ney flew to London and met with two men who, according to people familiar with the visit, were interested in selling aircraft parts to Iran's crash-prone national airline, something prohibited under U.S. sanctions without a special exemption.

One of the men, Nigel Winfield, was a U.S. citizen with a long criminal record, alleged mob ties and a $2.9 million federal tax lien pending against him. The other was Fouad al-Zayat, described by the British press as a "go-between" for Middle East defense contracts and one of the biggest casino gamblers in the country, whose nationality has been variously reported as Syrian or Portugese.

Some time after that meeting, Ney's staff says he returned to London, visited an exclusive casino frequented by al-Zayat and parlayed a $100 initial bet into $34,000 in winnings on just two hands of a card game, which gambling experts say would be extremely good luck.

While the win raised eyebrows when Ney reported it on his 2003 financial disclosure statement, his dealings with Winfield and al-Zayat have received even more intense scrutiny since the Heath Republican became embroiled in the bribery investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon.

Ney was identified as "Representative No. 1" in plea agreements by Abramoff and Scanlon, who said they plied the lawmaker with gifts in return for legislative favors involving American Indian casinos and a Florida casino cruise company. Ney has denied wrongdoing.

"Certainly, some legitimate questions have been raised" about the London trips, said Bob Williams, a project director at the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based political watchdog group. "It certainly seems unusual to the casual observer."

Ney spokesman Brian Walsh refused to provide further details about the trips or the gambling winnings.

"There is absolutely nothing new to report on (in) my view," he wrote in response to a list of written questions.

At one point, Ney cited national security as a reason for refusing to discuss his dealings with Winfield and al-Zayat, who at the time were registered as directors of a firm called FN Aviation Systems Ltd., which paid for Ney's first trip to London. The company had offices in London and Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea that is considered a tax haven.

Some media reports have referred to FN Aviation as an aircraft-leasing firm. British corporate filings listed it under "security brokers and dealers."

Roy C. Coffee, a Washington lobbyist who was hired by Winfield and helped arrange Ney's initial 2003 trip to London, said Winfield "came to us to discuss a humanitarian exemption to the Iran Sanctions Act for both spare parts and potentially new planes for Iran commercial aviation. It was strictly commercial aviation."

Coffee discussed the trip in two interviews. Due to ethical obligations, he said he obtained a signed release from Winfield to provide some details.

Another lobbyist involved in the episode - David DiStefano, a former chief of staff to Ney - did not respond to requests for comment. (Lobbying disclosure reports show FN paid DiStefano $20,000 in 2003, while it paid Coffee $220,000.)

Iran has blamed a large number of civilian airline crashes on its inability to get new airplanes or parts for an aging fleet of Boeing and Airbus jets. Wade and al-Zayat, who claimed to have once represented Boeing in the Middle East, hoped to broker a deal between Iran and Boeing.

In 1982, Winfield, who was then living in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was sentenced to six months in prison for playing a role in a scheme to defraud rock music legend Elvis Presley of $300,000 through a complex airplane leasing deal. Prior to that, according to press reports, he had pled guilty to charges of writing bad checks and falsifying credit records, and was on friendly terms with New England mafia figure Salvatore Michael Caruana and New Jersey mobster Samuel Rizzo De Cavalcante.

The latter information was contained in a 1981 report by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. The board accused Winfield of secretly owning racehorses, including a Kentucky Derby favorite. In 1988, Winfield was sentenced to 10 years in prison for evading $7.4 million in taxes.

Coffee said: "We had no earthly idea about his background until the summer of 2003, well after we had introduced him to Mr. Ney, well after we had taken Mr. Ney to London to meet with them."

The information came to light when FN Aviation was dissolved, for reasons Coffee said he was not at liberty to disclose. Winfield, described as an "aviator" and a resident of Cypress in one corporate filing, resigned from FN in 2005. By then, the company had changed its name to FAZ Air Ltd.

Coffee, who was an aide to George W. Bush when he was Texas governor, said the group planned to work with Congress on the Iran sanctions issue. He denied a report that Ney was asked to approach the Bush administration for an exemption to the sanctions.

"Our strategy was a congressional strategy," Coffee said. "We figured Mr. Ney would be interested and we went to Mr. Ney. He's had a long-term interest in the Middle East."

Boeing had received a license from the Clinton administration in 1999 to sell parts to Iran Air, though some administration officials expressed suspicions that Iran used civilian planes to aid terrorism. In 2002, Bush called Iran part of an "axis of evil" that also included North Korea and Iraq.

Coffee said FN's plans fell through when the U.S invaded Iraq in 2003.

"It sort of put everything on hold with regard to the Middle East. That was not a time to work the Congress on Middle Eastern issues," he said.

Coffee said he was not involved in Ney's second trip to London in 2003.

"We heard about it several weeks later and asked him if he had seen Fouad (al-Zayat). He said that he had. We were not aware of the (Ney gambling) winnings until it became a story," Coffee said.

Ney disclosed the $34,000 win under the gifts section of his 2003 congressional financial disclosure statement, describing the source as a "game of chance" at a casino called the "Ambassador's Club." Les Ambassadeurs, as the club is formally known, is one of several posh private casinos in London where high rollers drop hundreds of thousands of dollars in a night.

Al-Zayat, who belonged to the club, was known as one of the "whales" of the London gambling scene, people who wager large sums of money. One casino, the Ritz, sued al-Zayat after checks he wrote for $3.5 million worth of chips allegedly bounced, after he had amassed more than $17 million in gambling losses, according to British press reports in 2002.

Ney's office has never disclosed the name of the game the congressman played at Les Ambassadeurs, though Walsh, his spokesman, described it in 2004 as similar to draw poker. I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School and a noted authority on casino gambling, said Ney may have been playing three-card poker.

Based on the London casino's payout formula, Ney could have been dealt a straight on the first hand and a straight flush on the second hand to amass the winnings he reported, Rose wrote in an email.

"For a casino to pay 6 to one on the first bet and 56 to one on the second as he reported, the odds have to be less than 340 to 1," Rose wrote.

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