By Nedra Pickler
Monday, October 18, 2010; A17
Prosecutors are retrying an associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, though an earlier jury couldn't agree he broke the law, a key witness won't be back and a recent Supreme Court decision could make such corruption cases harder to prove.
The retrial of Kevin Ring is the last unresolved case that prosecutors have against members of the team assembled by Abramoff. The prominent Republican lobbyist in Washington was convicted of corruption charges along with a congressman and a dozen other government officials his group tried to influence.
Abramoff and four other members of his lobbying team have pleaded guilty to federal crimes in agreements with prosecutors. Ring is the only member trying to beat the charges in court.
The father of two from Kensington, Md., tells friends the fight has cost him more than $2.5 million in legal bills as he prepares for a second trial. It's scheduled to begin Monday.
The first trial ended exactly a year ago. That jury couldn't reach a unanimous decision on his guilt or innocence on eight counts alleging that Ring lavished expensive meals and box-seat event tickets on federal officials in return for favors for clients of Abramoff's team.
Ring's attorney, Andrew Wise of the firm Miller & Chevalier, said jurors told him afterward that the closest they came to convicting Ring was eight out of 12 votes on some counts. Wise said the jurors who wanted to acquit "just didn't see a link between the gifts and the acts and they saw this as traditional lobbying."
Ring's defense was that he was just doing his job in a Washington system that Wise acknowledged can be broken and ridiculous. Wise argued that Ring was supposed to get public officials to help his clients, and he had an expense account that he used to try to do so, just like countless other lobbyists who fill lunch tables at Washington's top restaurants every weekday.
Critics of this modern practice say that ideally lobbyists should be using good arguments, logic and evidence - not expensive gifts - to sway public officials.
Prosecutors argued that Ring, a former aide to now-retired congressman John Doolittle (R-Calif.), had a long-term scheme to give gifts to public officials until eventually they would pay him back with favors for his clients. Their evidence included Ring's boastful e-mails with other team members, jokingly describing their team as playing "sugar daddy" or "bullies" toward public officials.
One of the prosecution's leading witnesses was John Albaugh, ex-chief of staff to former congressman Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.). Albaugh testified that he would help Ring's clients get funding on transportation projects after Ring treated him to meals out and tickets to performances such as George Strait, Tim McGraw and Disney on Ice.
But this time prosecutors don't plan to put Albaugh on the witness stand because he recently told them he had an "aha" moment and realized that he wasn't giving favors to Abramoff clients because of the gifts. He said he did the favors because Abramoff's firm was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Istook's campaign fund.
Most of the felony counts that Ring faces are for honest-services fraud. This charge is used frequently in corruption cases against politicians and corporate executives. The law was designed to criminalize various techniques that might be used to deprive the public of the "honest services" of a government official.
But the honest-services law was weakened by a Supreme Court decision in June. Reviewing the honest-services conviction of former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, the high court ruled that to get a conviction, prosecutors must prove defendants accepted bribes or kickbacks.
Justice Department officials declined to comment about Ring's retrial. But prosecutors have argued in court that the Skilling decision will not affect their case because Ring's gifts of meals and tickets were bribes. Still, many observers say the bar is higher after the Supreme Court's ruling.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, opposed the Supreme Court's decision and would like to see Ring convicted. But she doesn't see how he can be now that the law has changed.
"I think the prosecution has a very tough case because it's going to be hard to show whether a particular meal or event was in exchange for specific legislation," Sloan said. "I didn't expect Ring to be retried [after the Skilling decision], especially after they didn't do so well the first time."
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle declined to dismiss the honest-services charges against Ring after the Skilling decision, but said the case "is filled with challenges" and will be difficult for the jury.
- Associated Press