By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005
Lobbyist Kevin A. Ring sat silently as Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) displayed e-mails and canceled checks to support allegations that Ring and lobbyist Jack Abramoff inflated fees and concocted invoices to defraud their client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Testifying before the committee Wednesday morning, Ring asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but he also offered an apology. "I'm sorry the clients for whom I worked have had to endure the enormous emotional and financial burden," he said.
The terse statement omitted an intriguing fact: Ring is still working for the Choctaws as their paid Washington lobbyist. Indeed, he was actively lobbying members of Congress to pass a Choctaw-backed amendment that came up for a vote in the House on Friday afternoon.
Ring is one of more than a dozen lobbyists who were members of "Team Abramoff," the tight-knit group who worked under Abramoff when he was at the lobbying helm of the Washington office of Greenberg Traurig LLP and, before that, Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP.
Members of that influence dream-team continue to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars as registered lobbyists, often lobbying for former Abramoff clients -- unimpeded by the taint of scandal and revelations of suspicious deal-making in the brash and sometimes salty e-mails exchanged with Abramoff.
Along with Neil G. Volz and Edward P. Ayoob, Ring left Greenberg Traurig and went to work for Barnes & Thornburg LLP. Shawn Vasell, who like Ring asserted Fifth Amendment rights Wednesday, now works in the Washington office of Hewlett-Packard. Other former Team Abramoff members include Todd A. Boulanger, who handles as many as eight client accounts at Cassidy & Associates Inc., including Abramoff's former client, the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana; and Tony C. Rudy, who represents as many as a dozen clients at the Alexander Strategy Group.
Ring is one of the few Abramoff alumni who have been able to hold onto the same tribal clients who now say they were victimized by Abramoff's fraudulent billing practices. A federal task force is investigating those practices. Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, said his client could not comment while under investigation.
"It is a story of betrayal," testified Choctaw executive Nell Rogers, who sat at the same witness table as Ring.
Choctaw officials and their lawyer did not return several phone calls Thursday and Friday seeking comment for this article.
Deemed too radioactive to represent clients without causing embarrassment, Abramoff, along with his onetime business partner, Michael Scanlon, have largely been forced to give up their lobbying and public affairs practices. But most of their former associates still pound the halls of Congress for well-heeled clients.
The Indian affairs committee, during the third hearing into lobbying practices, released a fresh batch of e-mail among Abramoff and his team members. Documents show the laundering of money through nonprofit groups, a phony Christian grass-roots effort and attempts to pump up and doctor invoices sent to tribes.
Rudy, a former top aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), wrote Abramoff in 2001 that Senate staffers wanted $10,000 to pay for a trip to "reward" them for getting a specific appropriation for the Choctaws.
"There is a hunting and fishing resort 3 hours south of texas that smith's people expressed an interest in," Rudy wrote on Sept. 21, 2001. It is unclear who "smith's people" are. Abramoff said he did not think he could justify the trip, and Rudy said it would be a "thank you trip for the approps we got." Said Abramoff, "Smith's people didn't get us the approps for Choctaw, but good try! :)"
The issue was not resolved in the e-mail chain because Abramoff said they would "discuss next week."
Rudy could not be reached, but in the past has declined to comment while the matter is under investigation.
E-mail shows some Team Abramoff members were alarmed at some of the practices. In an e-mail to Rudy, Boulanger raised suspicions about a request to clients to contribute $25,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity created by Abramoff and used to pay for a trip of a member of Congress and for a sniper school in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
"What is it? I've never heard of it," Boulanger wrote June 20, 2002.
"It is something our friends are raising money for," Rudy replied.
"I'm sensing shadiness," Boulanger said. "I'll stop asking."
When Rudy forwarded Boulanger's suspicions, Abramoff responded with an expletive. "I did not want you to bring Todd into this!!!"
Boulanger declined to comment Friday.
Vasell also expressed dismay. In June 2001, he e-mailed Abramoff about preparing a bill for the Choctaws. "The bill is a disaster (again)," Vasell wrote, ". . . people's entries compared to time inputted and work performed is a joke."
Abramoff asked about the bill's total, and Vasell replied $120,000. Abramoff asked Vasell to "tell me how much you need me to cover to get the bill up to around $150k."
Vasell replied, "This is a very bad system that I am very uncomfortable with."
On another occasion, an Abramoff aide, whose name was redacted in the released e-mail, wrote to Abramoff about making up justifications for time billed to Choctaws. "I'm creatively entering your July and August time in now (with the help of some great language that Shawn [Vasell] and Kevin [Ring] have provided)."
The committee also released documents showing cash flowing in and out of a limited liability corporation called KAR LLC that was based at Ring's Maryland home. The corporation received a check for $25,000 on Dec. 15, 2003, from Grassroots Interactive LLC, a company apparently controlled by Abramoff.
In mid-February 2004, a few weeks before the Abramoff-tribal money scandal broke, Abramoff and Ring agreed to a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post. Shortly afterward, Ring returned the $25,000 to Grassroots Interactive.
Ring's corporation also received $125,000 in the spring of 2002 from Scanlon's public affairs firm, Capital Campaign Strategies. The notation on one check cited a "referral expense." McCain said Wednesday the money appeared to have come from the Pueblo of Sandia Tribe of New Mexico.
"What services benefiting the Pueblo Sandia did you provide for that $125,000?" McCain asked Ring, before answering his own question. "In fact, you didn't provide any services, according to the information that we have."
McCain also questioned Ring about an e-mail he sent Abramoff asking for "some help from a client to subsidize me joining a club." Ring said he needed $800 for the initiation fee at the exclusive University Club in Northwest Washington.
After Abramoff offered to pay the tab, Ring said, "Really? There is no way to bury this in Choctaw or SGMA [another client] bill?"
McCain asked Ring for an explanation. "I respectfully invoke my constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment," Ring said.
Another intriguing, but cryptic, e-mail exchange between Abramoff and Ring seems to be about billing. The subject line reads "Choctaw" and the e-mail refers to GT, or Greenberg Traurig.
Ring: "How much does GT bread cost Choctaw? $1.50 per loaf plus or minus a few cents. this loaf cost $1.19 and I was wondering if I should increase price or leave as is. Know what I mean?"
Abramoff: "The loaf should cost no less than $1.50."
When Ring left Greenberg Traurig for Barnes & Thornburg a few months ago, he brought many former Abramoff clients, including the International Interactive Alliance, the Gibraltar-based group that advocates for gambling on the Internet.
Money from the International Interactive Alliance was the subject of another unusual flow of cash. In 2003, the alliance gave $1.5 million to Greenberg Traurig, which then gave it to a nonprofit group, which then gave it to Kaygold LLC, a company controlled by Abramoff, congressional records and testimony show.
For the Choctaws, Ring has tried to win support for an amendment by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) that would exempt tribal casinos from labor laws on the grounds that the tribes are sovereign governments.
Hayworth has a long relationship with Team Abramoff. He used sports skyboxes that Abramoff charged to clients from 1999 to 2001 but failed to report the use to the Federal Election Commission until late last year, after publicity about the federal investigation of Abramoff. Hayworth's amended reports show his campaign fund reimbursed two Abramoff clients -- the Choctaw and Chitimacha -- $12,880 for using the sports suites five times.
According to records obtained by The Post, Ring last month coordinated with Hayworth's office on a letter to members of Congress from Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin seeking support for the tribal labor amendment.
The amendment to the Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services appropriations bill was defeated Friday, 256 to 146.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford, researcher Alice Crites and database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.