Former Justice Department official Robert Coughlin II pleaded guilty today to accepting free concert tickets, luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings from a member of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying team in exchange for helping the lobbyist's clients.
The Justice Department's far-reaching probe has snared a dozen officials, including congressmen, Hill staffers and prominent lobbyists, but today marked the first time one of the department's own admitted guilt in the affair.
Coughlin, 36, received the gifts from former Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Kevin Ring, while he was in the Justice Department’s office of legislative affairs from 2001 to 2003. The documents do not include Ring's name, identying him only as "Lobbyist A." (Click here and here for some fill-in from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.)
The one count criminal information conflict of interest carries up to 10 months in prison and a $10,000 fine under the terms of the plea deal. Citing personal reasons, Coughlin resigned last April as deputy chief of staff in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, which is handling the Abramoff probe.
The statement of offense filed today says that Ring held Coughlin out to be among his most prized contacts at the Justice Department. Coughlin, the documents say, provided Greenberg Traurig with "information regarding the status and responsibilities of certain DOJ officials, and advised [Ring] regarding which official in various components was a 'friendly,'" or a political appointee who was inclined to help Greenberg Traurig's clients.
Among other things, Coughlin helped Ring obtain a $16.3 million grant for the Choctaw Tribe to build a jail. According to the documents, Coughlin set up meetings between the lobbyist and a political appointee in the Office of Justice Programs with grant-making authority and approached officials in the Office of Legislative Affairs with legislative materials from Ring.
During that time, Ring provided Coughlin with a steady "stream of things of value," the documents say, including 25 "occasions" at upscale restaurants and bars in the District (the Abramoff-owned Signatures among them); 20 tickets to sporting events; five concert tickets; and a round of golf. The government values the gifts at $6,180. Coughlin has calculated the total at $4,800.
The parties disagree on the value of a skybox for a Redskins game at FedEx Field, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Leotta at the hearing today.
Coughlin, who said in court that he is unemployed, declined to comment after the hearing. His lawyer, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Joshua Berman, said in an e-mailed statement that "Mr. Coughlin is deeply saddened by these events and looks forward to focusing his attention on his family and moving forward with his life."
A sentencing date has not been set, but U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle scheduled a status hearing for September. Leotta said that he may ask her to continue that hearing. Presumably, it would depend on Coughlin's cooperation with the government, which is promised in his plea agreement.
Prosecutors have put off Abramoff’s sentencing here in the District on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion several times, citing his cooperation in the ongoing investigation. He is serving prison time for unrelated charges originating in Florida.
Ring is reportedly under investigation, as is his former boss Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who is retiring after this year. Ring was asked to resign from Greenberg Traurig along with most of Abramoff’s yeomen and later joined Barnes & Thornburg. He left after opting to take the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before a congressional committee investigating the suspected exploitation of Indian tribes.