David Ayres, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s chief of staff, apparently helped an associate of lobbyist Jack Abramoff secure $16.3 million in government funds for an Indian reservation jail in 2002, prosecutors said over the weekend.
The revelation that Ashcroft’s long-time top aide was involved in the controversial award for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians came Sunday in this government court filing in the Kevin Ring case.
Ring is a former lobbyist who worked closely with the now-imprisoned Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig LLP in Washington. The ongoing Abramoff investigation has netted a slew of guilty pleas and one conviction from lobbyists, congressional aides, a congressman, and executive branch officials. Jury selection for Ring’s trial on public corruption charges is slated to begin today.
Ayers, who is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group, is not accused of any crime. But his name surfaced in connection with the notorious Choctaw jail last week, when Ring’s lawyers filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle to compel the government to grant Ayres and his wife immunity to testify on Ring’s behalf.
David and Laura Ayres have indicated they will invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if called to testify, a filing by Ring last week said. Ring argues he needs the couple’s testimony to refute government charges he offered them tickets to basketball games at the MCI Center in Washington with the intent of influencing David Ayres’s official actions. But prosecutors have declined to grant immunity, the Ring filing said. Read our previous coverage here.
“Neither Ayres has been willing to speak to the government, which consequently has no idea what either would say about those events,” the government said in its Sunday filing, which also noted that Ayres didn’t report the basketball tickets from Ring on his government financial disclosure forms.
It’s not entirely clear what’s going on here. The government’s refusal to grant Ayres immunity could mean he’s a target of the probe. But it didn’t allege in Ring’s 2008 indictment any direct connection between Ayres’s official actions and the basketball tickets he received from Ring.
Rather, prosecutors said they believe Ring was dangling perks before Ayres in order to secure his assistance in the future. “The evidence at trial will show that Ring hoped and intended that David Ayres would ‘pay … back’ Ring and his lobbying colleagues for those and other things of value,” Sunday’s filing said.
Ring, a former aide to then-Sen. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) in the late 1990s, was indicted in 2008 on broad charges he corrupted public officials in Congress and the executive branch by offering them free meals at expensive restaurants and tickets to concerts and sporting events in exchange for official acts. Access to Abramoff’s exclusive suite at the MCI Center was one of the draws for public officials, the government alleges. (The downtown Washington sporting and concert venue has since been renamed the Verizon Center.) Ring has denied the charges.
Part of the indictment focuses on Ring’s efforts to secure the jail grant for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, who had been Abramoff clients since 1995. Ring maneuvered to thwart a lower-ranking DOJ official’s recommendation that the $16.3 million grant for the jail be cut nearly in half, the indictment says.
In a Jan. 22, 2002, email to Abramoff marked “COMPLETELY Confidential,” Ring wrote that he’d heard the DOJ official in charge of the jail grant “had kicked the final decision on the jail upstairs” to more senior DOJ officials after pressure from Ring, the indictment says. Six days later, Ring held a teleconference with an unidentified “senior DOJ official,” the indictment says.
A few days later, DOJ awarded the tribe the entire $16.3 million grant, according to the indictment.
Afterwards, Ring lobbied the DOJ to grant a waiver from a requirement the jail construction project be awarded through competitive bidding, the indictment says.
In the filing Sunday, the government identified Ayres as a senior DOJ official who helped Ring secure the full grant for the jail. Moreover, the government said Ring later intended to seek Ayres’s help to circumvent the competitive bidding rules for the jail’s construction.
Ring, with Abramoff’s consent, gave Ayres tickets in March 2002 to the March Madness NCAA college basketball tournament at the MCI Center, prosecutors said in their Sunday filing. Ayres appears to be the unnamed DOJ official in the indictment about whom Ring emailed a lobbying colleague on March 16, 2002: “Glad he got a chance to relax. Now he can pay us back.”
Then in January 2003, Laura Ayres asked Ring for “several expensive tickets” to a professional basketball game at the MCI Center, telling Ring they were a birthday gift for her husband, the government filing said. Ring gave the tickets to her, with Abramoff’s approval, the filing said.
Ayres did not respond to a request for comment.