April 22, 2008 -- A former Justice Department official pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to a federal conflict of interest charge for his connections with a friend and former lobbyist tied to Jack Abramoff.
Robert E. Coughlin II pleaded guilty to participating in matters with lobbyist Kevin Ring who is identified as "Lobbyist A" in court records.
According to the court documents outlining the offense, Coughlin did not have substantive contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been identified as "Lobbyist B" in the court records.
The conflict of interest violations all took place before Coughlin was appointed as deputy chief of staff at the department's criminal division, a position he held until last year. Previously, he had also worked in the Justice Department's office of legislative affairs and later as the deputy director of the office of intergovernmental and public liaison.
Joshua Berman, Coughlin's lawyer, said in a statement after the hearing, "Mr. Coughlin is deeply saddened by these events and looks forward to focusing his attention on his family and moving forward with his life."
According to court documents filed at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Coughlin accepted numerous things of value from Ring while he worked at the Justice Department, including "meals and drinks at upscale restaurants in Washington, D.C., including Signatures, a restaurant owned by [Abramoff].
"These items of value also included rounds of golf and stadium and luxury-suite tickets to concerts and sporting events at the MCI Center, Camden Yards and FedEx Field," the documents continued.
"Coughlin understood that, in general, Lobbyist A [Ring] did not pay for these meals, tickets or golf outings with his personal funds. Coughlin believed that, in general, The Law/Lobbying firm [Greenberg Traurig], rather than a particular client, was paying for these costs. Coughlin did not know that Lobbyist A billed the hours he spent socializing with Coughlin as lobbying activities," the court records noted.
Ring, who worked for Abramoff's law firm Greenberg Traurig, was allegedly seeking to secure a Justice Department grant worth $16.3 million for the Choctaw tribe to build a prison. "Coughlin contacted various DOJ officials to obtain information for Lobbyist A regarding land dispute between two Indian tribes," the documents note.
The court records also cover a series of April 17, 18, and 2001 e-mails in which "Coughlin accepted a dinner invitation from [Ring] and informed [Ring] that the DOJ official at the [office of legislative affairs] who would handle the tribal jail grant issue had Democratic political leanings and, accordingly, might not be favorably inclined."
A week later, after thanking Ring for the dinner, Coughlin notified him that the tribe was only approved to obtain $9 million under the grant program and that the Justice Department had denied the $16.3 million request. According to court documents, Coughlin wrote, "maybe we could come up with some strategy in order to make sure they get the rest of the money."
Through May and July 2001, Coughlin updated Ring about the grant application, and according to court records, months later, Ring wrote to Coughlin and another DOJ employee that Greenberg Traurig had "'reached a crisis point' in its efforts to obtain the $16.3 million grant. Lobbyist A explained that 'My senior partner [Abramoff]' has made abundantly clear to me that this is the highest priority."
Once the grant was approved, the court documents note, "On June 25, 2002, after learning that DOJ approved the waiver of competitive bidding for the $16.3 million grant, Lobbyist A e-mailed Coughlin with the subject line 'CHA-CHING!!!!' Lobbyist A wrote to Coughlin, 'Thanks is not strong enough. We need to celebrate this issue finally being over.'"
Three days later on June 28, 2002, Lobbyist A paid for lunch for Coughlin and two officials at Signatures."