In closing arguments today, Justice Department prosecutors portrayed Kevin Ring, a former associate of Jack Abramoff, as an aggressive young member of a lobbying team that was corrupt to its core. But Ring’s lawyer insisted his client found legal, if occasionally unseemly, ways to navigate the currents of Washington and thrive professionally.
The case, which went to the jury this afternoon after four hours of closing arguments and three weeks of trial, explored relationships between Justice Department officials and Team Abramoff. It is also a high-profile undertaking for the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity and Fraud sections, which collaborated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland on the case.
Ring is accused of plying public officials with meals and tickets to sporting events and concerts in return for advancing the interests of his clients — by inserting projects in appropriations bills, drafting legislation and applying pressure where needed. He is charged with conspiracy, honest services wire fraud and giving illegal gratuities. Of the 20 or so former lobbyists, executive officials and congressional aides tripped up by the Abramoff probe, Ring is only the second defendant to opt for a trial.
The other, David Safavian, the former head of federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget, was found guilty last December of making false statements and obstructing justice. Abramoff is serving a six-year sentence after pleading guilty to bribery and fraud in two separate cases. He has been cooperating with the government in the investigation.
Though Abramoff did not testify, he was never out of mind. ”Kevin Ring learned to lobby from Jack Abramoff,” began Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Leotta in his closing arguments.
Ring, an aide to former Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), followed Abramoff in January 2001 from the firm then known as Preston Gates to Greenberg Traurig, where the lobbyists enjoyed more autonomy. There they had access to an “unlimited expense account” for grooming public officials with “little bribes” and rewarding friends who helped their clients, Leotta said.
“This is about the corruption of our democracy,” Leotta said.
In court filings, the government named Doolittle and his wife, Laura, as unindicted co-conspirators. Prosecutors said Ring worked with Abramoff to get Doolittle’s wife a job, which paid tens of thousands of dollars, in a bid to curry favor with the California Republican. Doolittle, who helped Team Abramoff with numerous projects, once said he felt like a “subsidiary” of Preston Gates. Doolittle declined to seek a 10th term last year.
Miller & Chevalier’s Andrew Wise, who represents Ring, sought to distance his client from Abramoff. He noted wryly that Leotta slipped the imprisoned lobbyist’s name into the first six words of his closing. “Eight if you count ‘Good morning,’” he added.
Wise presented Ring as someone with profound understanding of the political process, a knack for policy and the ability to build lucrative relationships on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
“His excellence as a lobbyist is something you may not set aside,” Wise said.
Ring was different, Wise said, noting that his colleagues used to rib him for leaving bars earlier than everyone else. ”Don’t go all K. Ring on me,” went the joke.
He never intented to corrupt public officials, Wise said. ”It was his job to influence public officials…he used what were traditional tools, including entertainment, meals, tickets to games,” Wise said.
But a string of convicted lobbyists and a former congressional aide testified that Ring was an integral part of team Abramoff, and prosecutors said he followed its warped code.
“He wants you to believe everybody got it wrong but him,” said Michael Ferrara, a trial lawyer in the Public Integrity Section. ”It doesn’t make sense.”
At trial, the government relied heavily on emails between Ring and his colleagues. A key piece of the government’s case focused on Ring’s relationship with Robert Coughlin II, a former lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison.
Coughlin pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a conflict of interest. He admitted helping Ring secure a $16.3 million grant for a jail for one of Ring’s tribal clients in return for meals and sporting tickets. While Coughlin was not in a position to award the money, he arranged for Ring to meet with high-ranking department officials and provided him with information to bolster Ring’s arguments for funding the grant.
Prosecutors removed Coughlin from their witness list on the eve of trial after he accused the Justice Department of unfairly singling him out for prosecution and denied that he was ever influenced by Ring’s gifts.
The government alleged that David Ayres, chief of staff to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, ultimately made the decision to award the grant, overruling then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tracy Henke, who thought the figure too high. Ayres is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm. Henke is a principal there.
In March 2002, Ring gave Ayres tickets to the NCAA college basketball tournament at the MCI Center. The Justice Department later waived the competitive bidding requirement on the grant, allowing the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to pick its contractor of choice. Ring also supplied Ayres wife, Laura, with basketball tickets in January 2003. She approached Ring, saying they were a birthday gift for her husband, according to court documents.
Ring wanted to put Ayres on the stand to prove he had no intention of influencing Ayres, but the longtime Ashcroft aide and his wife invoked their Fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. The government declined to grant the Ayreses immunity, and Judge Ellen Huvelle, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, denied Ring’s motion to compel it.