Case Against Ex-Abramoff Associate Hits Curves
By Joe Palazzolo | September 4, 2009 10:31 pm

UPDATE (9/8):

In a filing Sunday, the government said Robert Coughlin II, the only Justice Department official to face charges in the Abramoff probe, would not be called as a witness at trial. Coughlin is a former lawyer in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison and was deputy chief of staff in the Criminal Division under then-AAG Alice Fisher.

He was also Ring’s prized contact in Main Justice, helping the lobbyist with the Choctaw matter, among others, in return for free concert tickets, luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings. Coughlin pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest charge.

But Coughlin told prosecutors during a mock cross-examination last week that he was unfairly targeted for prosecution and that “the things of value Mr. Ring gave him did not influence his official actions,” according to a government letter to Ring’s lawyers.

In their Sunday filing, prosecutors said Coughlin’s absence would  strip “quite a bit” of substance from their case, adding that it amounted to a “windfall” for Ring. But the government still intends to use Coughlin’s out-of-court statements at trial. Ring’s lawyers have asked Huvelle to strike them.

The Sunday filing also appears to clear up a witness problem related Ann Copland, a former staffer for Mississippi Sen.Thad Cochran (R), who pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to commit honest services wire fraud. She told investigators back in January she “could not bring herself to admit that the things of value she received [from Ring] influenced her, even in part, in her performance of official actions,” according to a filing last week by Ring’s lawyers.

The government disclosed Copland’s statement to Ring’s lawyers last Wednesday. Ring has asked Huvelle to cordon off Copland’s out-of-court statements, arguing that her January interview shows she was never part of the Abramoff cabal.

But in a second meeting the with prosecutors and agents in February, this one at her request, Copland apologized for ”not being entirely forthcoming” and admitted tickets she received from Ring influenced her to advance his client’s interests, prosecutors said.

“Since then Copland has consistently told the truth: that she conspired with Ring and others to commit honest-services wire fraud,” the filing said.

***

There’s been a lot of turbulence this week in the government’s case against Kevin Ring, the former associate of imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff who’s accused of corrupting public officials.

On the cusp of trial, it appears both sides are having witness problems. David Ayres, who was chief of staff to Attorney General John Ashcroft, plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if the defense calls him to testify, Ring’s lawyers said in this Sept. 2 court filing. Jury selection begins Tuesday.

On the government side, potential witness Ann Copland, a former staffer for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R), told investigators back in January she “could not bring herself to admit that the things of value she received [from Ring] influenced her, even in part, in her performance of official actions,” according to a Sept. 3 Ring filing, citing newly disclosed information from the government. Ring’s lawyers said the government disclosed Copland’s statement to them on Wednesday.

Copland’s statement is a bit of a surprise, considering Ring is accused of smothering Copland with gifts — while she was on Cochran’s payroll — to advance the interests of Team Abramoff. Copland pleaded guilty in March to accepting gifts in exchange for official acts, including helping one of Ring and Abramoff’s clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, secure $16.3 million for a new jail.

The government appears to be having second thoughts about another potential witness, Robert Coughlin II, a former lawyer in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison and deputy chief of staff in the Criminal Division under then-AAG Alice Fisher. Coughlin pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a conflict of interest between his DOJ job and his relationship with Ring. He admitted to helping Ring, his friend of two decades, with the Choctaw matter, among others, and to accepting free concert tickets, luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings.

In meetings with prosecutors on Tuesday and Wednesday, however, Coughlin asserted that “the things of value Mr. Ring gave him did not influence his official actions,” according to a pre-trial letter from Public Integrity Trial Lawyer Michael Ferrara to Ring’s lawyers, who entered the government disclosure into the court record today.

“He opined that the decision to charge him with a felony was an abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” Ferrara said in the letter to Miller & Chevalier’s Andrew Wise and Timothy O’Toole. Coughlin also told DOJ interviewers he believes the government “unfairly singled him out for prosecution,” Ferrara’s letter disclosed.

(Coughlin is the only Justice Department official to become ensnared in the Abramoff probe, though other unnamed officials appear in court filings in his case and elsewhere. Click here for more background on Abramoff’s influence within the department.)

These disclosures, Ring’s lawyers argued in court filings, make clear that Copland and Coughlin “did not enter into an agreement to commit any criminal act, and that the government accordingly has no good faith basis” to use their email or hearsay statements at trial. Ring’s lawyers are pressing U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to strike them.

Also on Wednesday, prosecutors told Ring’s defense team they planned to call three additional witnesses, Daniel Bryant, Su Daly and Gregory Harris — all former Justice Department officials — presumably to substitute for Coughlin, Ring’s filing said. Ring’s lawyers argued the government should be barred from adding these late additions to the witness list. “Mr. Ring could have prepared and filed extensive briefing on why this sort of testimony would be improper. For now, he can simply point out that the lack of percipient knowledge of the witnesses and the impropriety of any opinion testimony that would purport to offer,” Ring’s filing said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment, as did Ring’s defense team.

Meanwhile, Ayres’s apparent refusal to testify raises questions about what potential liability he might consider he has. Ayres, who is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group LLC, did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Ring’s lawyers want to put Ayres and his wife, Laura Ayres, on the stand to discuss event tickets they received from Ring in 2002 and 2003. The government intends to argue that Ayres took the tickets in exchange for an official act, Ring’s lawyers said in the filings. But they believe that “Mr. Ayres and Ms. Ayres each would provide critical exculpatory testimony regarding the circumstances of Mr. Ayres’ receipt of those tickets and regarding Mr. Ring’s contact with Mr. Ayres on relevant issues,” according to Ring’s court filings. It’s unclear what that exculpatory testimony might be. However, Ring and Ayres have known each other since the late 1990s, when both were on then-Sen. Ashcroft’s Senate staff.

The alleged official act likely circles back to Choctaw jail. Congress earmarked $16.3 million for the project in 2001, but Tracy Henke, then a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs, thought the job could be done with $9 million.

Team Abramoff applied pressure, the government says, and eventually the Justice Department reversed itself, doling out the full $16.3 million. It’s still unclear who overruled Henke, if anyone — but that question will likely be answered during the four-to-six week trial. (Henke also works for Ashcroft’s consulting firm, as a principal.)

The Justice Department declined Ring’s request to grant David and Laura Ayres immunity against future prosecution, and they won’t testify without protection, Ring’s filing said. Ring’s lawyers argue that “the refusal to grant immunity and the blanket invocations of the Fifth Amendment privilege in response are unsustainable” because charges against the Ayreses would be time-barred. (Their testimony would be confined to events that occured in 2002 and 2003, beyond the statute of limitations.)

Ring has asked Huvelle to compel immunity or, failing that, to consider another remedy, such as disqualifying government documents or testimony.

Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.

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One Comment

  1. Gary S. Chafetz says:

    The case against Kevin Ring should be immediately thrown out. I was the only reporter to gain extensive (and to a large measure exclusive)access to Ring’s boss, Jack Abramoff. (I secretly interviewed Abramoff without conditions for over 100 hours, before and during his imprisonment.) Even though I am a staunch liberal, I concluded that Abramoff, an arch conservative Republican, wasn’t really guilty of much of anything. I firmly believe that federal prosecutors who use the vaguely defined (probably unconstitutional) honest-services statute (particularly the “private” version) and who also arm-twist white-collar defendants into pleading guilty are themselves guilty of suborning perjury and abuse of power. It is they who should be jailed.
    Abramoff has no business being in prison, especially not for nearly six years. The only reason he is in prison is because of bad press he received from The Washington Post, which wrote misleading and in one particular instance a deliberately dishonest story about Abramoff’s alleged defrauding of his tribal clients. (And by the way, I love the Post and personally know its former editor, Ben Bradlee.) Abramoff never defrauded his tribal clients. When one carefully examines the evidence, the charge is utterly absurd. In fact, as their lobbyist he actually saved these very sophisticated Indian clients many billions of dollars.
    I wrote an entire book about it: The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

    Gary S. Chafetz

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