- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A lobbyist’s job is to influence politicians, even if that means showering them with gifts.

And, according to one of the key figures facing trial in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, that’s a Washington tradition, not a crime.

Attorneys for lobbyist Kevin Ring argued in court papers filed this week that a landmark Supreme Court decision protects those traditional lobbying activities from one of the government’s most used, but recently diminished, anti-corruption tools.

The court filings Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington mark the first high-profile defendant to seek to apply the high court’s ruling last month that undercut convictions of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and media magnate Conrad Black.

In a unanimous decision, the court scaled back the scope of the honest-services fraud statute, which the Justice Department has used for years as a catchall to prosecute a variety of corruption allegations — virtually any time the public has been denied what the justices deemed “the intangible rights of honest services.”

The high court said prosecutors went too far, ruling that honest-services fraud can be charged only in cases involving bribery and kickbacks.

The decision is of no small significance for Mr. Ring, as seven of the 10 charges he faces are related to the honest-services fraud statute. His case may have a lasting importance in helping define how prosecutors can use the honest-services fraud statute when prosecuting lobbyists.

“This decision will have a unique impact on the lobbying industry, and industry insiders will certainly be watching closely to see how the court rules as a guide to make sure they don’t run afoul of the law in the future,” Robert Mintz, a New Jersey white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

Mr. Mintz predicted a flurry of similar court filings in cases brought under the honest-services fraud statute, which he said previously included “a very broad and ill-defined standard of criminality.”

“Every case here is going to be very fact-specific. It is going to be very premature to say courts are going to be throwing out these allegations in many of the criminal cases that are now pending,” he said. “But there is no question judges will be analyzing the government’s charges in light of this decision to see if it withstands that test the Supreme Court has laid out in bringing these types of charges.”

Mr. Ring is accused of providing tickets, pricey meals and other gifts to members of Congress, their aides and other public officials in exchange for all manner of “official” favors.

He worked with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now serving the remainder of his four-year sentence on corruption charges on home detention while working at a Baltimore pizzeria. Nineteen people, nearly all of whom pleaded guilty, have been convicted as part of the scandal.

Unlike most of the others, Mr. Ring did not plead guilty and fought the charges against him. His first trial ended last year with a hung jury. He is scheduled to go on trial a second time this fall.

But whether that second trial includes charges of honest-service fraud likely will be decided in the coming months.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle asked Mr. Ring’s attorneys earlier this month to file a motion of acquittal in light of the high court’s ruling in the Skilling case.

The Justice Department, which previously said the Skilling case should have no impact on Mr. Ring’s prosecution, is scheduled to file a response brief next week.

Mr. Ring’s attorneys — Andrew T. Wise and Timothy O’Toole — argued in court papers that the government fell far short of proving the bribery element required to meet the Supreme Court’s new standard for honest-services fraud.

“The governments proof of ‘bribery’ in Mr. Rings trial ignored the need to prove a promise or agreement by the public official, instead focusing on unilateral conduct — gifts of meals and tickets — that has long been viewed as part of traditional lobbying,” the lawyers wrote.

The attorneys also wrote that “while many people might find this traditional practice distasteful, there was nothing deceptive or fraudulent about this conduct; it is how lobbying has been practiced for many years, and nothing presented at trial showed otherwise.”

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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