By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
A former high-ranking official in the Justice Department pleaded guilty yesterday to accepting thousands of dollars worth of meals and sports tickets from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for helping a variety of Abramoff's clients.
Robert E. Coughlin II, the former deputy chief of staff of the Justice Department's criminal division, became the latest of more than a dozen public officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members to be convicted or to plead guilty in the wide-ranging federal investigation of Abramoff's activities.
As part of his plea agreement, Coughlin, 36, agreed to cooperate with investigators, making him a potentially important witness in the ongoing scrutiny of Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.). Coughlin acknowledged performing a variety of official acts for Kevin A. Ring, a key member of Abramoff's lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig and a former legislative aide to Doolittle. Coughlin and Ring are longtime friends who worked together on Capitol Hill a decade ago.
Coughlin admitted violating the federal conflict-of-interest statute while he served in the department's offices of legislative affairs and public liaison between March 2001 and October 2003. According to court papers filed yesterday, he leaked department information, attended meetings and contacted his Justice colleagues to help clients of Abramoff and Ring.
Federal investigators are scrutinizing Doolittle and his wife, Julie, who owned a consulting firm that was hired by Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig to raise money for a charity Abramoff founded. Ring, while working for Abramoff, was an intermediary in the hiring of Julie Doolittle's firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc., people familiar with the investigation have told The Washington Post.
Also unresolved is an investigation of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose wife, Christine, worked for a lobbying firm that received client referrals from Abramoff.
Coughlin told U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle yesterday that he already had met at least once with federal investigators.
Ring wined and dined Coughlin on 25 occasions at pricey restaurants, primarily Signatures, a downtown establishment that was partly owned by Abramoff. Coughlin also accepted from Ring 20 tickets to seven sporting events at the Verizon Center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and FedEx Field, where Abramoff leased luxury suites; five tickets to three concerts; and one round of golf, the documents said. Prosecutors estimated the value of the gifts to be about $6,180, but Coughlin's estimate is about $4,800.
Coughlin helped Ring and Team Abramoff in efforts to secure $16.3 million from a division of the Justice Department to build a jail for the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff's clients, and in the process waive a competitive-bidding requirement. Initially, Justice approved a $9 million grant.
According to the court filings, which included excerpts from e-mails, Ring often sprinkled meal invitations with requests for aid. He invited Coughlin to attend an April 2001 meeting at Justice about the Choctaw jail grant "so some of the clowns there know that I have friends, if you get my drift." After that meeting, Ring treated Coughlin and his wife to a $300 meal at Olives.
When the grant was approved a year later, Ring sent Coughlin an e-mail with the subject line: "Choctaw CHA-CHING!!!!"
"Thanks is not strong enough," Ring wrote to Coughlin. "We need to celebrate this issue finally being over." Three days later, Ring bought Coughlin lunch at Signatures.
At Ring's request, Coughlin also helped with an immigration matter for a student attending Abramoff's yeshiva in Silver Spring, leaked internal deliberations regarding a bill affecting a client and contacted Justice officials regarding a land dispute between Indian tribes, among other things.
Coughlin also identified Justice officials who the lobbyists could consider "friendlies," employees who would assist Abramoff in achieving results for their clients.
Ring declined comment yesterday.
Coughlin told prosecutors he did not recall having a substantive conversation with Abramoff, and said his main contact with the team was Ring, who has known Coughlin since 1992 and worked with him for then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who became attorney general in 2001.
While Coughlin knew Ring was not footing the bill for gifts personally, he did not know that Ring was billing their social gatherings as lobbying expenses. "Coughlin also was unaware that Lobbyist A [Ring] held Coughlin out to be one of his most valuable lobbying contacts at DOJ," said the document, known as a statement of offense.
Coughlin failed to report the gifts on his financial disclosure forms for 2001, 2002 and 2003.
Twice, in March and April of 2002, Ring also discussed with Coughlin a possible job at Greenberg Traurig, the court filing said.
In 2006, Coughlin won an award from then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for his efforts to prevent fraud and white-collar crime. Gonzales said at an awards ceremony that Coughlin deserved recognition for "exceptional dedication and effort to prevent, investigation, and prosecute fraud and white-collar crimes."
Coughlin, who said he now lives in Texas, faces as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but his plea agreement indicates he is likely to face no more than 10 months and a $10,000 fine, or less, if he cooperates.