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08.03.15 10:51 PM ET

Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief Backed a Crooked Congressman, Called Him ‘My Surrogate Father’

Before he ran the campaign of the Republican front-runner, Corey Lewandowski worked for—and talked up—a congressman convicted on corruption charges.

Donald Trump has made his disgust for Washington and the GOP elite the centerpiece of his campaign. But the man behind that campaign, who rose from relative obscurity to run an operation that is easily crushing its rivals in the polls, is himself a product of an old-boys network of Republican insiders that imploded when lobbyist Jack Abramoff testified against his friends in Congress.

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, launched his career in Washington politics as an aide to Representative Bob Ney, best known for his involvement with Abramoff. And just weeks before Ney was sentenced to prison on federal corruption charges in 2007, Lewandowski was pleading for leniency for his old boss, praising him as a “consummate professional.” 

“I had the privilege of spending 20 hours a day with Bob seven days a week for over three years,” Lewandowski wrote in a letter to Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, who presided over Ney’s trial. “In that time, I learned more about life, people, politics, friendships [sic] and the importance of family than I ever could have imagined. Bob served as a mentor to me, as a surrogate father, and as a best fiiend [sic] all in one.

“No one can make excuses for what has occurred but I know a different Bob than what is portrayed in media accounts,” the letter continued. 

Judge Huvelle, apparently unmoved by Lewandowski’s glowing assessment of Ney, handed down a sentence of 30 months for conspiracy and making false statements—three more months than the sentence the prosecution requested—telling him that, “as a member of Congress, you had the responsibility above all else to set an example and to uphold the law.”

You can read the letter here:

Trump’s staffers have been a source of controversy in recent weeks. His aide Sam Nunberg was fired for racist Facebook posts, including one in which he called President Obama a “Socialist Marxist Islamo Fascist Nazi Appeaser.” Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, got into hot water last week when he exploded in an expletive-laden tirade against a Daily Beast reporter for raising a rape allegation made against Trump by his former wife. During the rant, Cohen claimed that marital rape was legal—it is not—and bragged about destroying the life of a young beauty queen.

Lewandowski’s full-throated support for Ney may cause some headaches for Trump, who often implies that his personal wealth makes him incorruptible.

In exchange for various gifts, including campaign contributions, Ney, then the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, did favors for Abramoff’s clients, such as inserting amendments into a 2002 election reform bill that would benefit them.

Lewandowski served as an administrative assistant to Ney from the end of 1997 to February 2001. Ney later pleaded guilty to helping Abramoff’s clients between 2001 and 2004.

Abramoff told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t remember Lewandowski. “I might have met him, but don’t recall it,” Abramoff said.

After leaving Ney’s office, Lewandowski went on to manage the re-election campaign of New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, who lost the Republican primary in 2002. He later signed on with the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, where he worked before joining team Trump as a political adviser.

The Trump campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.