A former associate of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded not guilty today to corruption charges in the latest installment of the widespread influence-peddling investigation that has landed public officials and Washington power brokers behind bars.
Kevin Ring, 37, a former staffer for Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., who later worked at the Greenberg Traurig law firm with Abramoff, was indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, obstruction of justice, honest services wire fraud and payment of gratuity charges.
The court unsealed the 10-count indictment today after federal agents arrested him at his Maryland home at 7 a.m. Ring appeared in federal court this afternoon wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, who ordered the indictment unsealed, asked whether Ring knew his rights to counsel, and said, "This is a serious criminal charge."
Ring entered a plea of "Not guilty."
In a written statement, Ring's defense attorney Richard Hibey said, "Since January 2006, Mr. Ring voluntarily met with federal prosecutors and agents of the FBI, Department of Interior and IRS over twenty times to discuss his work with Mr. Abramoff. During these estimated 100 hours of meetings, Mr. Ring was candid, forthright and honest regarding his relationships with Mr. Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and various public officials.
"While Mr. Ring had been cooperating with officials for over two years, he simply could not plead guilty to crimes he did not commit. From that point, he was deemed uncooperative. ... The prosecutors orchestrated the spectacle of arresting Mr. Ring in front of his wife and children this morning," Hibey's statement said.
The indictment alleges that Ring was a central figure in the lobbying scandal and that he worked as a liason between Abramoff's corrupt lobbying activities and the network of officials from Capitol Hill, the Interior Department and the Justice Department, who assisted them on various projects, ranging from items in appropriations bills, Indian casino gambling issues, immigration issues concerning the Northern Marianas Islands, and statehood for Puerto Rico.
According to court documents, Ring, Abramoff and others provided trips, meals, tickets to events and other things of value to several public officials in order to promote favorable treatment of their clients, which included several American Indian tribes with interests in gambling ventures.
Ring and his co-conspirators then allegedly added the costs of the lavish gifts to their clients' bills, without disclosing full details of the expenses.
From fundraising dinners at Abramoff's now-defunct Washington restaurant Signatures, to access to luxury suites at Washington's MCI Center and the Washington Redskins' home FedEx Field, to discussions of money requested through the House Appropriations Committee, Ring allegedly took part in a complicated web of suspect activity.
The Abramoff probe has ensnared numerous public officials, highly-placed Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists and a former employee of the Justice Department. So far, 13 individuals have entered guilty pleas as part of the investigation.
Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, pleaded guilty as part of the probe in February 2007, and was released from federal custody last month. Last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., sentenced Abramoff to an additional four years in prison for his role in the scandal. He was already serving time in a separate Florida case.
The charges against Ring come after an additional string of guilty pleas earlier this year that seemed to implicate him as part of the corruption investigation.
In April, former Justice Department employee Robert Coughlin pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest charge for his connections with Ring. Coughlin accepted numerous things of value from Ring while he worked at the Justice Department and helped Ring secure a Justice Department grant worth $16.3 million for the Choctaw tribe to build a prison.
The indictment against Ring also details additional allegations about Justice Department officials attending meals with Coughlin and Ring. On Feb. 4, 2002, Ring allegedly sent an e-mail to a member of his lobbying team, asking for tickets to a Dave Matthews Band concert. The e-mail said, "Bob really helped on the jail."
In the e-mail, Ring also allegedly noted that the MCI Center suite was "filling up with DOJ staffers that just got our client $16 million."
According to the indictment, the lobbying team member wrote back, "[A]s for DOJ staffers, those guys should get anything they want for the rest of the time they are in office -- opening day tickets, Skins vs. Giants, Oriental massages, hookers, whatever."
The involvement of Coughlin has led to some Justice Department officials being recused from the investigation and has prompted the Justice Department's office of the inspector general to become involved. Along with the FBI, DOJ office of inspector general agents also participated in Ring's arrest today.
Also key to the government's case was a June guilty plea to conspiracy from John Albaugh, a longtime aide to former Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.
Previous court papers in the Abramoff cases show that Albaugh received more than $4,000 worth of sporting event tickets, concert tickets and meals, allegedly from Ring and Abramoff. E-mails between Ring and other co-conspirators, including Albaugh, detail the misdeeds alleged in the indictment against Ring.
"You are going to eat free off of our clients. Need to get us some [client issue] money," a March 2002 e-mail from Ring to Albaugh said.
After a months-long series of fundraising and social events, as well as e-mails in which the pair allegedly went over plans to secure funding for Ring's clients through committee appropriations bills, Ring wrote Albaugh in a November 2003 e-mail, "Now let's get that [subcommittee] conference done so we can bring the bucks home!!!!!!!"
In response, Albaugh wrote, "I [am] actually going thru the earmarks right now!"
Albaugh pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge stemming from the lobbying probe in June.
Istook, identified only as "Representative 4" in court documents, as he has not been charged with any crime, served as the chairman for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies. Multiple e-mail messages cited in the indictment refer to earmark money requested as part of bills before that panel.
"On or about March 19, 2003, shortly after [sic] Abramoff spoke to Representative 4, Abramoff sent an e-mail to defendant Ring and other members of the lobbying team, in which Abramoff told them that Representative 4 had 'basically asked what we want in the transportation bill,' and instructed them to 'make sure we load up our entire Christmas list,'" the indictment read.
Istook did not run for re-election to Congress in 2006, instead pursuing a failed bid to become governor of Oklahoma. He currently works for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. At the time of Albaugh's guilty plea, Istook was told he was not a target of federal investigators.
The court documents indicate that investigators have scrutinized the offices of Ring's former employer, Doolittle, who is identified in the indictment as "Representative 5."
Seventeen pages of the 49-page indictment detail contacts between Abramoff, Ring, Doolittle and members of his staff and the vast array of meals, tickets and expenses that were allegedly passed over many years.
"On or About Feb. 9, 2000, Ring expensed lunch for [Doolittle] at the Capital Grille, one of the many meals at various restaurants that defendant Ring bought for [Doolittle] and expensed" to his law firm, according to the indictment.
The indictment also mentions Doolittle's efforts to help Puerto Rico's statehood bid, "On ... May 25, 2000, defendant Ring sent an e-mail to Abramoff and another lobbyist, in which defendant Ring confirmed that [Doolittle] would help on the Puerto Rico statehood issue, which was supported by an Abramoff client, and that [Doolittle] and his chief of staff visit Puerto Rico before introducing the bill because the visit 'will give them a hook' for introduction of the bill."
The next year, in April 2001, Ring allegedly wrote to Abramoff about a Puerto Rico trip for Doolittle's chief of staff and his wife, and noted, "I don't think they want to have too many scheduled visits or activities." Abramoff replied, "They don't need any scheduled activities."
The indictment alleges that Ring paid for numerous meals at expensive Washington restaurants and provided tickets to popular concerts for Doolittle's staffers. It also notes that Abramoff found employment for Doolittle's wife with a consultant that organized fundraisers and events for him at his firm Greenberg Traurig. In a 2002 e-mail, Abramoff wrote to the consultant who would hire her, "I am not sure what role she should play and it does not have to be significant. She should just be helpful to you as you need her."
Court records note that Abramoff's firm paid Doolittle's wife approximately $96,000.
In response to the detailed references to Doolittle in the indictment, his attorney David Barger, said in a statement, "It is clear that portions of the Kevin Ring indictment were designed to make gratuitous references to the congressman and his wife. This appears to have been done to titillate the public, with the foreseeable and, therefore, intended consequence of attempting to embarrass and pressure the congressman. Not once in this document does the Department of Justice allege any sort of illegal agreement between Congressman Doolittle, on the one hand, and Kevin Ring or Jack Abramoff, on the other. To the extent the Indictment can be read to imply such an agreement, the congressman continues to steadfastly maintain there was none and that he is innocent."
If convicted of the charges against him, Ring could face a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy charge, three years for payment of a gratuity, 10 years each for the obstruction of justice charges and 20 years for each honest services wire fraud count. Additionally, a judge could order him to pay a fine of up to $250,000, if convicted.