- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

A jury Monday convicted the final figure to face trial in the Abramoff lobbying scandal of most of the charges he faced, possibly ending one of the final chapters in a corruption case that “garnered attention from the Beltway and beyond.”

Kevin A. Ring, former associate of disgraced Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, stood with his hands clasped in front of him and showed little visible reaction when a jury forewoman said the panel had found him guilty of five of the eight charges he faced.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle scheduled a March 1 sentencing hearing where Ring faces a maximum sentence of decades in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines will surely call for a much shorter sentence.

Ring declined to comment after leaving the courtroom.

The verdict came after nearly three full days of deliberations after a trial that lasted several weeks. Ring’s first trial ended in a hung jury last year after a different jury failed to reach a verdict.

Several members of the second jury said the volume of evidence against Ring convinced them of his guilt on charges of conspiracy, providing illegal gratuities and honest-services fraud. Prosecutors relied heavily on e-mail messages to show that Ring provided tickets to sporting events and pricey meals to Robert Coughlin, former Justice Department official who has since pleaded guilty but avoided prison time under a plea agreement with prosecutors.

In return for the gifts, prosecutors said, Coughlin helped secure a $16.3 million grant for an Indian Tribe that Ring and Abramoff represented. Coughlin also helped students attending a school run by Abramoff quickly clear immigration hurdles.

In one e-mail prosecutors used at trial, Ring wrote that Coughlin should “pay us back” for tickets to the 2001 NCAA Basketball March Madness tournament.

“The public trusts that government processes will be untainted by those who would seek to corrupt them,” said John G. Perren, acting assistant director of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “The FBI will vigorously investigate those who seek to disregard the laws that our country was built on and illegally influence those in office.”

Jurors said they were generally unconvinced by arguments from Mr. Ring’s attorneys that he had done nothing illegal and was simply doing his job as a lobbyist.

“There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things,” juror Tom Bandy, 61, a U.S. Postal Service retiree, said of the message he hoped the verdict sent to K Street lobbyists. He said there wasn’t one particular piece of evidence that convinced him of Ring’s guilt, but the way in which many pieces fit together.

“It clicked,” he said. “The prosecution did its job.”

Several jurors stressed the complexity of the case and one, Andre Ruffin, 48, a taxicab driver, said that although he thought Ring was guilty, the case was a waste of time and money.

“The reason it’s overkill is it is hard to prove intent,” he said.

Intent figured heavily in the case. Last week, the jury sent a note to Judge Huvelle saying they were deadlocked. At issue, according to the note, was difference between legal and illegal gifts, a critical distinction in the case.

Judge Huvelle, a 1999 appointee of President Clinton’s, said gifts from lobbyists to public officials are permissible if their purpose is to gain access or cultivate a relationship, but gifts are illegal if their purpose is to encourage the public official to do something corrupt. The key issue, she said, was intent.

In addition to the case’s complexity, prosecutors had to overcome other difficulties before winning convictions against Ring.

First, the Supreme Court earlier this year narrowed the scope of key anti-corruption law - the often-charged honest-services fraud - ostensibly making it more difficult to win convictions on six of the eight charges Ring faced. Ring’s attorneys asked the judge to dismiss the case in light of the Supreme Court ruling, but she declined.

Then, on the eve of trial, a witness whom the judge called the prosecution’s “strongest” recanted. John Albaugh, former chief of staff to Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican, said he no longer thought he gave favors to Abramoff clients in exchange for free meals and tickets.

Ring was the second to last remaining defendant in the Abramoff scandal; Fraser Verrusio, former aide to Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, still faces charges of accepting free tickets to the 2003 World Series from Abramoff associates. Mr. Verrusio was indicted in 2009. No one else has been charged since.

Ring also is one of only two to take their case to trial. Friends say that decision cost him as much as $2.5 million in legal fees.

The Abramoff scandal targeted 20 people, nearly all of whom pleaded guilty or were convicted, including Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in 2006 and is serving the end of a four-year sentence on home detention while working at a Baltimore pizzeria.

But the investigation was not without its hiccups. Justice agreed earlier this year to allow a former high-level Labor Department political appointee during the Bush administration to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and receive probation after the case against him began to unravel.

Horace M. Cooper was charged with taking thousands of dollars in gifts from Abramoff and faced 40 years. However, prosecutors dropped all but one of the charges after Judge Huvelle called the case “troubling” and asked them to produce more details about the charges.

The department also chose not to seek charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who had been the highest-profile and most powerful target of the Abramoff investigation.

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

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