Retrial of Abramoff lobbyist Ring begins in D.C. federal court
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."