- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A tearful former Justice Department lawyer was spared a jail sentence Tuesday for his role in the influence-peddling scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said Robert Coughlin did not deserve jail time for his actions, even as she marveled at the number of disgraced government officials who had become enmeshed in the Abramoff case.

“This entire Abramoff-related matter raises a lot of questions,” said Judge Huvelle, who recently oversaw an Abramoff-related trial that ended in a hung jury and who has presided over the cases of other defendants in the influence-peddling probe.

“None of them are bad people. I wouldn’t say that,” she said, yet they still found themselves before a judge making excuses for their conduct.

“We ask a lot of public servants, and we should ask a lot,” the judge said, adding that actions that may have merited a misdemeanor conviction years ago were now taken more seriously.

“Times have changed,” the judge said. “We’re in a new era.”

She then sentenced Coughlin to a month in a halfway house, three years of probation and imposed a $2,000 fine.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Coughlin had faced as much as six months behind bars.

Coughlin admitted that he provided assistance to Abramoff’s lobbying team and its clients while accepting free meals and drinks and tickets to sporting events and concerts from Abramoff lobbying partner Kevin Ring.

Coughlin previously pleaded guilty to engaging in a conflict of interest, a felony.

Coughlin, who now lives in Kansas with his wife and daughter, bowed his head and cried as his wife implored the judge to spare him a jail sentence, and cried again when he spoke to the judge.

“I stupidly gave [Mr. Ring] preference because he was a longtime friend,” Coughlin told the judge. “I take absolute, full responsibility for my actions.”

Coughlin accepted the gifts from 2001 to 2003 while working on legislative affairs for the Justice Department. He later became deputy chief of staff of the department’s Criminal Division, the same division handling the Abramoff probe.

Mr. Ring was friends with Coughlin and lobbied him on various issues, including money for a jail for the Choctaw tribe. Coughlin obliged with insider tips, running interference with colleagues, and other help.

The disgraced lawyer also apologized to his former colleagues, saying he loved the department, and “if I have in any way cast a bad light on the department, I am truly sorry.”

Instead of pleading guilty like Coughlin, Mr. Ring fought his case before a jury, which deadlocked last month. A retrial is scheduled for next year.

The government charges Mr. Ring lavished thousands of dollars worth of tickets and meals on Capitol Hill employees and Justice Department officials in return for congressional appropriations and other assistance for Abramoff clients.

The Ring mistrial was the biggest setback in the government’s long-running prosecution of cases related to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators.

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