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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David Ayres, chief of staff to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, can invoke his Fifth amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying in the trial of Kevin Ring, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Ayres, who is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm, appeared in federal court in Washington with his wife, Laura Ayres, to take the Fifth in the presence of U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
David Ayres was on the stand for about five minutes, during which he declined to answer several questions related to a $16.3 million grant the Justice Department awarded to one of Ring’s tribal clients in 2002 and college basketball tickets he received from the lobbyist. Laura Ayres’s appearance was even briefer. She was asked one question about Wizards tickets Ring gave her in 2003.
Ring, a former associate of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff, sought to put them on the stand to disprove the government’s allegations that Ring intended to cultivate Ayres with the tickets in return for future favors. Ring is charged with 10 felony counts for allegedly plying public officials with meals and tickets to sporting events and concerts in exchange for helping his clients.
Ayres is not accused of any wrongdoing, nor is his wife. But the government alleges that in January 2002 Ayres helped Ring secure $16.3 million for one of the lobbyist’s tribal clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, overruling then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tracy Henke, who thought the figure too high. The grant was for a new jail.
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 Choctaw to pick its contractor of choice. Ring also supplied Laura Ayres with basketball tickets in January 2003. She approached Ring, saying they were a birthday gift for her husband, the government says.
The government has refused to grant the Ayreses immunity; Ring’s lawyer, Miller & Chevalier’s Andrew Wise, argued Huvelle could compel it. But Huvelle said Thursday she doubted she had such power.
“I’m not comfortable saying they don’t have a right to invoke the Fifth Amendment,” she said.
The ruling leaves unanswered the question of who made grant decision, though emails between Ring and his colleagues strongly suggest Ayres had some involvement. Wise said Ayres would have testified that he never pressured Henke, that Ayres and Ring discussed the jail but there was no quid pro quo, and that the two were friends.
Laura Ayres, Wise said, would have testified that Ring made her promise not to reveal the source of tickets because he “didn’t want Ayres to feel uncomfortable” about them coming from a lobbyist.
Huvelle said Wise could call Henke to testify about the Choctaw decision. Henke, who also works for Ashcroft, said in her grand jury testimony that she made the decision. But after a phone call to Ayres in January 2002, Henke emailed her staff, saying her last attempt to keep the grant amount to $9 million had failed.
Ring, now four days into his trial, did not leave the hearing empty-handed. Huvelle struck government exhibits referring to the birthday tickets and said she would instruct the jury not to speculate about the nature of two discussions between Ring and Ayres.
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Henry Schuelke III has the awkward distinction of being both Justice Department witness and Justice Department bane. Today, he was the former, testifying about his investigation of Jack Abramoff and his team of lobbyists, including Kevin Ring, whose trial began Friday.
Schuelke, whom we profiled here over the summer, is also the court-appointed counsel investigating the prosecutors involved in the dismissed Ted Stevens case for criminal contempt. Depositions in Schuelke’s DOJ investigation appear to be a few months off.
Ring’s lawyers raised concerns about Schuelke’s dual roles in pretrial hearings, but U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said she didn’t see a conflict. One of the Stevens prosecutors, William Welch II, is the head of the Public Integrity Section, which is sharing the Ring case with the Maryland U.S. Attorney office and the criminal Fraud Section at Main Justice. Welch recused himself from the Ring case to end what he called “distracting” defense motions.
In 2004, Greenberg Traurig hired Schuelke, of Janis, Schuelke & Wechsler, to investigate Jack Abramoff and his work for the firm’s D.C. lobbying practice. Schuelke interviewed about 25 GT employees and several of Team Abramoff’s tribal clients, and he rummaged though thousands of emails and financial records. Ring, as it turns out, was the first lobbyist Schuelke interviewed.
Ring is accused of lavishing members of Congress, their staff and executive branch officials with meals and tickets to concerts and sporting events in exchange for helping his clients. Some of the counts carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
He is the first lobbyist to go to trial. The others members of the team, including Abramoff, have pleaded guilty. Abramoff is not a witness in the case, but two of his associates — Neil Volz and Todd Boulanger — are scheduled to testify.
Schuelke, the government’s first witness, described a loose culture in which congressional ethics rules were considered quaint. Schuelke testified that Ring told him “gift ban rules were widely ignored [by members of Congress] and it was Mr. Abramoff’s policy to likewise ignore the rules.”
The firm-wide head of the lobbying practice, based in Florida, was in charge “in theory,” Schuelke said, but Abramoff and his team enjoyed autonomy.
Schuelke’s testimony followed opening statements by Ring’s lawyers on Friday that called into question the government’s assertion that David Ayres, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s chief of staff, helped secure a $16.3 million grant for a jail for one of Ring’s tribal clients.
Last week, we reported here that the government believes Ayres in early 2002 helped secure a $16.3 million grant for a new jail for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians after another DOJ official, Tracy Henke, recommended less money. But Miller & Chevalier’s Andrew Wise in court Friday appeared to contradict the government’s assertion about Ayres. ”Tracy Henke made the decision. The evidence will not show that David Ayres overruled Tracy Henke,” Wise said on Friday.
Henke, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs, now works with Ayres at Ashcroft’s consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group. Ayres has not responded to requests for comment.
Ring gave Ayres tickets in March 2002 to the March Madness NCAA college basketball tournament at the MCI Center, the government says. And in January 2003, his wife, 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, according to a government filing over the weekend. Ring gave the tickets to her, with Abramoff’s approval, the filing said.
Nathaniel Edmonds, a prosecutor in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, said Friday that Ring gave Ayres the tickets with the intent of influencing him on future matters. He pointed to an email in which Ring wrote to an associate, “Glad [Ayres] got a chance to relax. Now he can pay us back.”
Ring’s lawyer said the email was a joke. Ring knew he couldn’t “bully” the chief of staff to the top law enforcement official in the nation, Wise said Friday.
David and Laura Ayres have indicated they will take the Fifth Amendment if called to testify. The government has refused to grant them immunity. Ring’s lawyers say they need the Ayreses as witnesses to prove the longtime Ashcroft aide never performed any officials act for Ring.
Ayers is not accused of any crime. His name surfaced in court documents last week in connection with the Choctaw jail. Ring’s lawyers have filed a motion asking Huvelle to compel the government to grant Ayres and his wife immunity to testify on Ring’s behalf. Huvelle is expected to rule on the motion later this week.
Prosecutors also say Ring plied Robert Coughlin II, the only Justice Department official to face charges in the Abramoff probe, with meals and tickets for his help with the Choctaw matter, among others. Coughlin pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a conflict of interest. Prosecutors, however, took Coughlin off their witness list last week after he accused the Justice Department of unfairly singling him out for prosecution and denied that he was ever influenced by Ring’s gifts.
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. Ring referred to Coughlin as his prized contact in the Justice Department. The two are longtime friends.
Wise said Ring exaggerated Coughlin’s usefulness so he could use his expense account to pay for his friend’s meals.
“Lying to your boss about how you’re using your expense account is not a crime,” Wise said.
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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.
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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.