Dixie Chicks, Hockey Games Could Figure in Next Congressional Scandal

Charges against former Abramoff staffer could ensnare Doolittle.

September 8, 2008, 8:12 PM

September 8, 2008— -- Dixie Chicks concert tickets, ringside hockey seats and a private suite at Camden Yards. These are just a few of the gifts lobbyists allegedly gave a top lawmaker and his staff in exchange for help securing earmarks and other political favors for their clients -- a relationship that could lead to criminal charges against this Republican heavyweight, new court papers show.

The details are part of a 10-count indictment released today against former lobbyist and Capitol Hill staffer Kevin Ring that sheds new light on the alleged involvement of Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who is not running for reelection, in the wide-ranging influence peddling investigation stemming from the activities of now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Ring, 37, was arrested Monday and pleaded not guilty in federal court in Washington D.C. to the charges, which include conspiring with Abramoff to influence public officials through gift giving and skirting disclosure requirements.

The document also highlights contacts between Abramoff and former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Ok.) -- identified only as Representative 4 -- whose chief of staff plead guilty to taking gifts while securing a series of earmarks for Abramoff's clients.

The 46-page document appears to show how Doolittle -- identified only as Representative 5 -- helped Abramoff's team win earmarks and funding while the congressman and his staff took numerous gifts and fundraisers from Abramoff and his team.

Though the members' names are not in the documents, it gives enough information to make them clearly identifiable. Representative 4 is identified as the member now convicted Capitol Hill staffer John Albaugh worked for. Albaugh served as chief of staff to former Rep. Istook, who left office in 2006 to make an unsuccessful bid for governor. He is now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Institute in Washington D.C.

Representative 5 is listed as a member from California since 1993 who opposed gambling. Rep. Doolittle was elected to the 4th congressional district in California in 1993 and has opposed gambling. Ring is also a former Doolittle staffer.

Both members have adamantly denied any involvement in the scandal.

A statement released today by Doolittle's lawyer said the details of the indictment seemed intended only to "titilate the public." It continued: "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."

In an emailed statement, Istook issued a similar denial "I was as surprised and as shocked as anyone regarding my former chief of staff. Today's event simply repeats details previously made public regarding him. I am cooperating fully with officials and have been told I am not a target of their inquiries. Nor should I be."

The details surrounding Istook center on three fundraisers hosted by Abramoff and his team, for which Istook failed repay them in a timely manner.

They came at a time when Albaugh was helping Abramoff and his team win earmarks for their clients in the transportation bill in 2003.

The first fundraiser occurred on Feb. 4, 2003 at Abramoff's Washington D.C. restaurant, Signatures.

On March 19 that year, Abramoff fired off an email to Ring shortly after he spoke with Istook, the indictment states. Abramoff allegedly emailed that Istook "basically asked what we want in the transportation bill." He added a word of instruction: "Make sure we load up our entire Christmas list."

Just a few weeks later on April 10, the indictment states, Ring met with Albaugh to go over his firm's transportation appropriation requests and by July Albaugh had made sure that those requests -- worth more than $4 million had found their way in the subcommittee's draft of the bill.

All the while, Albaugh was taking a series of tickets and gifts.

But that was hardly the only thing Abramoff's team did for Istook and his staff. On July 28 Ring hosted a fundraiser at an MCI Center for Istook during an American Idol concert and another on Sept. 4 at a suite at the FedEx Field during a Washington Redskins game.

The relationship with Doolittle and his staff and Team Abramoff, goes back farther and is much more extensive. The first alleged contact listed in the indictment goes back to at least January 2000 when Ring invited Doolittle's chief of staff and district director to an ice hockey game at the MCI Center, "some of the many tickets for entertainment events that defendant RING gave Representative 5's staff free of charge," the indictment states.

The next month, on February 2, Ring allegedly reported progress to Abramoff: Doolitte's legislative director had called the Immigration and Naturalization Services, pushing for "an investigation into the immigration status of a woman who had been advocating minimum-wage and other labor reform that would adversely impact Abramoff' s clients in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands," the indictment states.

A week later, Ring expensed a lunch for Doolittle at the Capital Grille, "one of many meals at various restaurants that defendant RING bought for Representative 5" with his firm expense account, the indictment states.

After another such meal on April 4, Ring allegedly sent an email to a congressional staffer noting that he had met with Doolittle and that he had agreed to talk to the chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure about his firm's projects.

That was just one a number of issues in which Doolittle helped Abramoff's team over the next several, the indictment alleges. He allegedly wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in support of several requests for the Marianas Island, pushed for statehood for Puerto Rico, another Abramoff client, opposed an anti-gambling bill, and helped a tribal client get funds for a jail, among many other examples.

And not only did Doolittle allegedly take meals and tickets (from the Redskins to the Dixie Chicks). Ring and Abramoff also organized a number of fundraisers for Doolittle, including one that very evening of April 4, when they hosted a fundraiser at the MCI Center for Doolittle's political action committee. The indictment states that Doolittle failed to reimburse them for this fundraiser in a timely manner.

Doolittle's staffers allegedly benefitted too, and on one ocassion racked up a more than $2000 tab at Signatures that Ring expensed to his firm.

The relationship between Doolittle and Team Abramoff was apparently very close. Indeed, on Sept. 14, 2000, the indictment states, Doolittle's chief of staff sent Ring an email reporting that Doolittle said "he felt like a 'subsidiary'" of Abramoff's firm.

On Mar. 13, 2003, Ring emailed a Doolittle staffer asking for an earmark for an interchange project. Four days later an executive branch agency official sent Doolittle's office a note that asking for the group's contact information in order to insert about $1.8 million into the agency's budget. The staffer turned to Ring, writing: "I understand you are the representation on this request. Can you fill in the below information please?"

But tickets and meals weren't all Doolittle was after, the indictment alleges. He asked for help raising campaign funds and had his eye on a major prize: a job at one of Abramoff's nonprofits for his wife Julie, whose home office was raided by the feds in April 2007.

Shortly after Doolittle wrote a letter opposing an antigambling bill in July 2000, the indictment states, Abramoff wrote to thank him stating, "I will soon have something for you on the resources front."

But progress apparently was slow. In December 2000, shortly after Abramoff moved law firms to Greenberg Traurig, Doolittle sent him an email of congratuations. "Thanks for all that you have done to help us and to help the cause this past year," he wrote. Abramoff's reply "Please tell [your wife] I am sorry I have not been able to finish what we discussed, but I will have it in place soon," the indictment states.

It wasn't until Aug. 22, 2002 that Abramoff finally met with Doolittle's wife about a job. They arranged for her to be paid $1612.90 for the remainder of that month and $5000 per month thereafter until February 2004, the indictment states.

But exactly what her job entailed wasn't entirely clear. On Sept. 10, the indictment states, Abramoff emailed a consultant to a nonprofit company that he controlled asking to set her up with work. "I want her to help, but not be overburdened with work," he wrote.

On Feb. 23, 2004, Julie Doolittle received her last paycheck from Abramoff, bringing her total from the firm to $96,000.

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