Joshua Berman, a former federal prosecutor and candidate for U.S. Attorney in Detroit, has joined the Washington office of Katten Muchin Rosenman as a partner in the litigation and dispute practice, the firm announced.
Berman, who spent seven years as a prosecutor based in New York and Washington, was most recently head of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Washington-based litigation practice and co-chairman of its white-collar and government investigations practice.
Since leaving the Justice Department in 2004, Berman has represented several clients in high-profile corruption matters, including two figures in the sweeping influence-peddling investigation centered on Jack Abramoff and his associates.
One of his clients, Robert Coughlin, a former deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison, was sentenced in November to 30 days in a halfway house for accepting about $5,000 in meals, drinks and tickets from an Abramoff lobbyist.
Another client, Kevin Koonce, a former aide to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), was cleared of wrongdoing and recently filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, alleging prosecutorial abuse.
Berman (Cornell, Michigan Law) was a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section from 2002 to 2004. Before moving to Washington, he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District.
Last fall, a Justice Department official told Main Justice that Berman was among the finalists for the nomination to be U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, but President Barack Obama ultimately nominated then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade for the position. She was confirmed last month.
Katten Muchin Rosenman also welcomed Glen Donath, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the D.C. office’s Fraud and Public Corruption Section. Donath, who also came from Sonnenschein, represented Koonce along with Berman.
Donath (Yale, University of Chicago Law) also has represented health care providers, financial institutions, investment funds, insurance companies and other corporations in complex civil and criminal proceedings.
Also joining Berman and Donath at Katten is Howard Rubin, a health care and appellate specialist. He was previously national chairman of Sonnenschein’s appellate practice.
“We are thrilled to be joining Katten’s vibrant national litigation, health care and white collar and government investigations practices,” Berman said.
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A former Justice Department official on Tuesday was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house for accepting about $5,000 in meals, drinks and tickets from a lobbyist who worked with Jack Abramoff.
Robert Coughlin II, a former deputy in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison, pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a felony conflict of interest charge. He admitted helping Kevin Ring, a longtime friend, lobby officials in the Justice Department and discussing possible employment at Ring’s firm while receiving the gifts.
Coughlin joined the department in 2001 and resigned in 2007. He also served as a special prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia and as a top aide to then-Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, but the conduct in question occurred while he was at OIPL.
U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle also sentenced Coughlin to three years supervised release and ordered him to pay a $2,000 fine. He faced up to six months in prison under sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors made no recommendation as to whether Coughlin deserved time behind bars, saying in court documents that his sentence “should be fashioned so as to recognize the seriousness of this offense.”
“I take absolute and full responsibility for my actions,” Coughlin said at the sentencing in Washington, D.C.
Ring has been charged with conspiracy, handing out illegal gratuities and scheming to deprive taxpayers of the honest services of members of the executive and legislative branches, including Coughlin. Huvelle, who also presided over Ring’s case, declared a mistrial in his trial last month, after jurors deadlocked on all counts. Prosecutors have said they intend to try him again.
Prosecutors planned to put Coughlin on the stand during Ring’s case, but during a mock cross-examination in September, Coughlin said that he felt he was unfairly targeted by the Justice Department and that he was not influenced by Ring’s gifts.
In pre-sentencing documents, prosecutors asked Huvelle to credit him for cooperating in the Abramof investigation, but their recommendation, known as a 5k motion, was tempered.
Huvelle called it the “the least enthusiastic 5k I’ve ever seen.”
Michael Leotta, the Appellate Chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, said Coughlin’s crimes were “severe,” and he took issue with several assertions in Coughlin’s sentencing memorandum, calling them “ad hominen and false attacks.”
In particular, he disputed the implication that Coughlin might not have been prosecuted but for recusals in the Public Integrity Section and the U.S. Attorneys’ offices for the District of Columbia and the Eastern District of Virginia. (Officials in charge of the Criminal Division and those offices were friends of Coughlin.)
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland vetted the case and obtained from the Public Integrity Section criteria used to charge others in the Abramoff probe, Leotta said.
Coughlin’s lawyer, Joshua Berman of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, said Tuesday that his client was led by prosecutors into making the statements before the Ring trial. Coughlin, he said, was speaking “from his heart.”
But Coughlin was not excusing his conduct, Berman added.
For his part, Coughlin said he butted heads with prosecutors, but he apologized for tarnishing the department.
“I love the department. I love everything it stands for. I loved working there,” he told Huvelle.
Coughlin is the only Justice Department official to be prosecuted in the wide-ranging influence probe. Two other justice officials were investigated in the probe, one of whom was reprimanded internally.
“We ask a lot of our public servants, and we should ask a lot of our public servants,” Huvelle said, though she added that sentencing Coughlin presented a “very hard situation.”
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The Justice Department’s Inspector General investigated two DOJ officials in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, but they were never charged, according to court papers filed Wednesday night.
The disclosure came in a government sentencing memorandum for Robert Coughlin II, a former lawyer in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison and deputy chief of staff in the Criminal Division. Coughlin, the only DOJ official to be charged in the influence-peddling probe, pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a conflict of interest charge. Coughlin is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 24.
The memo does not name the other two DOJ officials, but it notes that the investigations are closed. The sentencing memo seems to put to rest questions about whether any other Justice officials, past or current, could face prosecution in the Abramoff probe.
The memo notes Coughlin’s help to prosecutors in probing other aspects of the case, but points out that he was “minimal assistance” in its investigation of former Abramoff associate Kevin Ring. Still, the Justice Department is crediting him for his earlier help. Coughlin faces up to six months in prison — but that’s unlikely, given his assistance and the treatment received by the majority of the other 17 officials convicted in the probe.
Federal prosecutors had planned to use Coughlin as a witness in the trial of Ring, who gave him more than $4,000 in meals and tickets to concerts and sporting events. Prosecutors say 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,” the memo says. (Ring’s case ended last month in a mistrial. Prosecutors have said they will bring the case again.)
Before Coughlin’s revelation during trial preparation, he had submitted to eight interviews with various agents.
According to prosecutors:
Coughlin was interviewed by DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) agents regarding other DOJ officials. He was also interviewed by an FBI agent regarding the broader Abramoff investigation. And he was interviewed by a DOJ Inspector General agent regarding allegations of politicized hiring at DOJ. The bulk of these interviews required him to travel to Washington, D.C., and to stay overnight. These interviews were of some use in closing the OIG’s investigations of two DOJ officials, and in completing the investigation of allegations of politicized hiring at the DOJ.
During the Ring trial, David Ayres, the chief of staff to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying.
Ring’s lawyers wanted to question Ayres about a $16.3 million grant the Justice Department awarded to one of Ring’s tribal clients in 2002 and college basketball tickets he and his wife received from the lobbyist.
Prosecutors said Ring intended to cultivate Ayres, who is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm, with the tickets in return for future favors.
The government alleged that in January 2002 Ayres helped Ring secure the grant for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, overruling then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tracy Henke, who thought the $16.3 million figure, to be used for a new jail, was too much.
Ring’s defense lawyers said they could show that Ayres did not make the decision to award the grant.
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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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U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jeffrey A. Taylor will step down Friday to lead the fraud section of Ernst & Young, The Associated Press reported this afternoon. Read the news release here.
Taylor, a former aide to Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, was appointed interim U.S. Attorney by the Justice Department in September 2006, after then-U.S. Attorney Ken Wainstein left to become Assistant Attorney General in the National Security Division. President Bush formally nominated Taylor in 2007.
But Taylor withdrew his nomination after D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) raised objections to Taylor’s hiring of an Assisstant U.S. Attorney with a history of ethical problems, under what Norton said was pressure from Bush officials at Main Justice. Lacking Senate confirmation, Taylor has been serving under a U.S. District Court appointment.
Interestingly, Taylor was also a close friend and former roommate of a defendant in the Jack Abramoff public corruption probe, we’d heard. We haven’t seen much, if anything, written about Taylor rooming with Bob Coughlin, who was deputy chief of staff to Alice Fisher, chief of the Criminal Division. Coughlin pleaded guilty in April 2008 to one felony count of accepting gifts from Abramoff and his associates. It just goes to show how closely knit the D.C. political/legal world is.
Melissa Schwartz in the Office of Public Affairs at Main Justice said Taylor rented a room from Coughlin in 2001, but she said the relationship had no bearing on a decision to refer Coughlin’s prosecution to Maryland instead of the District, where it logically should have been. Schwartz said that decision was made because Coughlin had been a special Assistant U.S. Attorney in D.C. during Wainstein’s tenure, before Taylor took over.
Mary Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com.