In a tremendous blow to the government’s corruption case against former Abramoff-associate Kevin Ring, the prosecution’s key witness will not testify after recanting testimony he gave during the lobbyist’s first trial.
John Albaugh, who was chief of staff to Rep. Ernest Istook, a former senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, informed prosecutors he no longer believes he used his position to benefit clients of Abramoff’s firm because lobbyists gave him free meals and event tickets.
In 2008, Albaugh admitted accepting gifts in exchange for helping lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Ring and their clients. After pleading guilty, Albaugh became a cooperating witness for the government, testifying in Ring’s first trial that he was motivated by tickets, meals, travel and other gifts to perform official actions on behalf of Ring’s clients.
But in a September 28 letter obtained by Main Justice, Nathaniel Edmonds, the case’s lead prosecutor, informed defense counsel that Albaugh had an “Ah-ha moment” and “had rethought some of his testimony from the previous trial involving Mr. Ring.”
Specifically, Edmonds informed Andrew T. Wise and Timothy P. O’Toole, both partners at Miller & Chevalier Chartered who are representing Ring, that Albaugh now believes that the role of the meals and tickets in his assistance to Ring was less than what he had previously testified.
“When discussing [Albaugh's] plea agreement in which [Albaugh] acknowledged being influenced by ‘things of value,’ [Albaugh] stated in sum and substance that he considered the campaign contributions, meals and tickets to be all part of the ‘things of value,’ but that he would not have taken the official actions for Mr. Ring if the campaign contributions were not provided,” Edmonds wrote.
Albaugh’s change of tune comes as a huge blow to the prosecution. After revealing the news to U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle during a hearing Tuesday, Huvelle remarked that Albaugh had been the prosecution’s “strongest witness,” according to an Associated Press story.
“The longer you go, the fewer witnesses you’ll have,” Huvelle told prosecutors during the hearing. “They really have to do some fancy footwork in this case.”
The case against Ring will be one of the government’s first major honest services fraud trials since the Supreme Court upended the traditional understanding of the statute earlier this year.
In Skilling v. United States, the Supreme Court limited prosecutors’ use of the honest services law to strict cases of bribery and kickbacks. In the past, prosecutors took a more expansive view of the law, with some alleging they used the statute as a “catch-all” tool to prosecute white collar crime.
Ring was charged last September as part of a probe that has led to the conviction of 18 lobbyists and public officials. Ring is one of only two defendants fighting the charges. His first trial ended in a hung jury last fall.
The government alleges the former lobbyist crossed the line by allegedly offering free event tickets and meals to 11 public officials in exchange for “official actions” spanning January 2000 to October 2004. Ring is not accused of defrauding anyone of honest services, but rather of creating a scheme to defraud the public of the honest services of a number of public officials.
The case against Ring focuses on the gray area between legitimate lobbying activities and the quid-pro-quo actions criminalized by anti-bribery law.
At a hearing in August, Huvelle denied a defense motion to dismiss the heart of the government’s case against Ring. While acknowledging the case was “filled with challenges,” Huvelle ruled that prosecutors can present evidence that could “infer” a quid-pro-quo exchange.
Albaugh is not the first witness the government has decided not to call because of conflicting statements.
Federal prosecutors had planned to use Robert Coughlin, a former liaison in the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, as a witness in the first trial of Ring. The lobbyist allegedly gave the lawyer more than $4,000 in meals and tickets to concerts and sporting events. Prosecutors said Coughlin helped Ring achieve lobbying victories, giving him inside information and setting up meetings with officials in return for a stream of gifts.
Days before he was to testify, Coughlin told prosecutors during a mock cross-examination that he felt he was unfairly targeted by the Justice Department and that “the things of value Mr. Ring gave him did not influence his official actions,” according to court papers.
Prosecutors dropped Coughlin from the witness list and “had to scramble on the eve of the trial to find other witnesses who could fully and accurately describe Ring’s efforts to corruptly influence and reward DOJ officials,” according to the government’s sentencing memorandum for Coughlin.
Coughlin later pleaded guilty to violating conflict of interest rules and was sentenced to a month in a halfway house and three years probation. Albaugh has not been sentenced.
The Justice Department is also declining to call on another government witness from the first trial, Ann Copland, who is a former aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
Although Copland pleaded guilty last year to accepting gifts from Abramoff’s team, she testified at Ring’s first trial that the favors did not influence any decisions she made in an official capacity. According to court filings, Copland has not yet been sentenced.
The AP reported Huvelle also denied a request during Tuesday’s hearing by three potential defense witnesses to invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
The witnesses are: David Ayers, chief of staff to former-Attorney General John Ashcroft; Ayer’s wife, Laura Ayers; and former congressional aide Pete Evich. During Ring’s first trial, all three invoked the Fifth Amendment, but Huvelle said they no longer are at risk of prosecution since the statute of limitations has expired.
Ring’s second trial is scheduled to begin next month.
Additional reporting by Leah Nylen and Aruna Viswanatha.