By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 7:27 PM
The final trial spawned by the Abramoff scandal that shook Congress and the Bush administration this decade began in a District federal court Thursday, opening with a sleazy portrait of official Washington and fresh doubts about tools to combat the corrupting influence of money in government.
Lobbyist Kevin A. Ring, 40, faces charges of conspiracy, fraud and making an illegal gratuity as part of a lavish four-year scheme that ladled out more than $1 million in meals, tickets and trips to federal officials in exchange for benefits to clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"There is no lobbyist exception for bribery and corruption," prosecutor Nathaniel B. Edmonds told jurors.
Edmonds described acts in which a well-tailored crew known as "Team Abramoff" seduced federal bureaucrats not with bags of cash but with floor passes to Wizards games, tickets to the owners' suite at FedEx Field and Puerto Rico vacations.
"Millions of dollars were spent to get these public servants a taste of the good life, a bit of Washington that only the rich and the famous get to see," Edmonds said. They did it so "the public officials would 'pay them back' for everything Team Abramoff gave them."
Ring's attorney, Andrew Wise of the firm Miller and Chevalier, said Ring was only doing his job of influencing public officials, did not know of specific illegal acts and was not responsible for the capital's "distasteful" lobbying culture.
"The way our government works and the role lobbyists play in our government are not on trial," Wise said. "Kevin Ring is on trial."
Legal analysts say the retrial of Ring - his first trial ended in a hung jury last October, with at least four of 12 jurors refusing to convict on any of eight counts - will serve as a barometer of the effectiveness of tools available to prosecutors to combat corruption among congressional and executive branch officials.
Since last year, those tools have been weakened. In June, the Supreme Court limited the government's application of a 1988 "honest services fraud" statute used in Ring's first trial, ruling that it applies only to bribes and kickbacks for specific acts. Before, prosecutors could target patterns of corruption and influence-peddling without proving an explicit quid pro quo.
After that ruling, and with the statute of limitations running out, one-time targets Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a former House majority leader, and Ring's former boss, ex-congressman John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), announced that they were told by the Justice Department that they would not be charged in the long-running probe.
Without such big names at stake and Ring a lesser player, a key government witness in his first trial recanted his story and will not be called to testify. Other defense witnesses may testify without fear of self-incrimination.
In a pretrial hearing outside the presence of jurors, U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle expressed skepticism, saying the government was "stretching" to come up with legal arguments after "you let all the major figures go."
Edmonds said the government would rely on Ring's words and e-mails.
"Paul presents an ethics problem for us. He has them," Ring said in one e-mail shown to jurors, referring to an official who allegedly refused to play ball. In another, Ring said former attorney general John Ashcroft's top aide should "pay us back" for choice seats to the 2002 NCAA March Madness tournament in Washington.
After securing a $16.3 million prison project for Choctaw Indians in Mississippi, Ring urged associates to thank "your friends on the Hill and in the administration."
"In fact, thank them over and over this week - preferably for long periods of time and at expensive establishments," Ring wrote. "Thank them until it hurts - and until we have a June bill that reflects the fact our client is about to get a $16.3 million check from the Department of Justice!!!"
Wise said prosecutors would not produce a single official to testify in court that he or she knowingly accepted a gift in exchange for an act. "E-mails perhaps show ignorance, but they are not evidence of crimes," Wise said.
Public interest groups say they expect that if Ring is acquitted, the Justice Department will press harder for tougher legislation.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that with a string of Supreme Court decisions since 2007 narrowing the application of public-corruption laws and loosening campaign-finance limits, ethical limits on Congress were eroding.
At least 19 lawmakers, Capitol Hill aides and government officials were convicted in the Abramoff affair, including then-Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).
"If any lesson could be taken from Abramoff, it is that every member of Congress but Ney got away with it, and today you wouldn't see Bob Ney plead guilty," Sloan said.
Abramoff is finishing a four-year term after admitting to dishing out campaign donations and gifts in return for more than $100 million in taxpayer funds, inside tips and legislation for clients.