Prosecutors called former Jack Abramoff associate Kevin Ring "lobbyist in name but a corruptor in practice" today during opening statements in the 38-year-old's criminal trial.
Justice Department attorney Nathaniel Edmonds told jurors that Ring had committed honest services fraud by dolling out expensive gifts to lawmakers and their aides in return for help passing legislation for his clients. The "stream of goodies" included $2,000 dinners, courtside tickets to see Michael Jordan play for the Washington Wizards, and tickets for concert events like Dave Matthews Band and Ozzfest.
"It was not a cup of coffee, it was not a box of donuts," Edmonds said of the gifts. “It was basically an unlimited expense account.”
Ring is the first of Abramoff’s former colleagues to stand trial during the Justice Department’s long-running corruption probe into the disgraced lobbyist. Sixteen people have pleaded guilty to charges. David Safavian, a friend of Abramoff’s and former official at the General Services Administration, was convicted in December for lying to investigators about a golfing trip he took with Abramoff and lawmakers to Scotland.
Today, Abramoff’s name seemed to pop up nearly as frequently as Ring’s. Edmonds used the phrase “team Abramoff” no less than a dozen times, describing the group of lobbyists the former Republican power broker assembled at Washington’s Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds and later Greenberg Traurig.
That “team” included both Todd Boulanger and Neil Volz, the former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who are scheduled to testify against Ring.
Prosecutors said Ring and his colleagues used their lavish gifts as “tips” to reward certain members of Congress and their staffs.
But one of their largest projects involved obtaining $16.3 million from the Justice Department for a prison to be built on a Choctaw Indian reservation. Ring first approached DOJ legislative director Robert Coughlin about the project, Edmonds said. Later, when it became clear Coughlin didn’t have power to overcome the objection of career Justice attorneys, Ring approached David Ayers, chief of staff to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Edmonds said Ring gave Ayers skybox tickets for the NCAA tournament. Later, DOJ approved the money, and waived competitive bidding for the prison.
Afterwards, Ring wrote a celebratory e-mail, telling his colleagues to thank their contacts “over and over this week, preferably at expensive establishments…Thank them until it hurts.”
Coughlin later pleaded guilty to violating a conflict of interest statute. Ayers has not been charged with any wrong doing, but according to media reports is ready to plead the fifth if he is called to testify by the defense.
Ring’s attorney Andrew Wise, a partner at Miller & Chevalier, told the jury that while they would “hear about things that make a mockery of what good government should be,” his client had not committed a crime.
Ring was an aggressive player in a “broken system,” in which legislators had purposely left the lawful boundaries blurry, Wise said. It was perfectly legal to hand out gifts in order to gain access and build relationships, he said. Ring, he added, had never had an explicit quid pro quo with any legislators.
“It was not a crime to give the meals and tickets unless they did it with an illegal intent,” Wise said.
Wise also did his best to distance Ring from Abramoff and his other colleagues, calling his client a “policy wonk.” He said “team Abramoff” was less a team and more a group of “independent contractors.”
He added that when Ring first came to Preston Gates, the firm had a sterling reputation.
“Mr. Ring joined a practice that was sound,” he said. “He did not join a conspiracy.” Wise told jurors the trial should last four weeks. Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is presiding.