WASHINGTON – An associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff who tried to beat corruption charges by arguing he was only doing Washington business as usual was convicted Monday of bribing public officials with meals and tickets.
Kevin Ring was found guilty of five felony counts and not guilty on three others in a second trial, after a first jury could not agree on a verdict last year.
Ring was the only lobbyist among the crew that became notorious as "Team Abramoff" during a sweeping investigation who fought criminal charges against him in court. Abramoff and five others pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors.
Twenty people have been convicted in the investigation, including 11 congressional aides and officials from the Bush administration that Team Abramoff tried to influence. Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, served prison time for taking bribes from Abramoff, including a lavish golfing trip to Scotland. One former Capitol Hill aide is awaiting trial.
Ring faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for conspiracy, two years in prison for payment of a gratuity and 20 years in prison for each of the three counts of honest services wire fraud. U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle scheduled sentencing for March 1.
The 40-year-old from Kensington, Md., showed no emotion in response to the verdict. He and his attorney Andrew Wise declined to comment outside the courtroom.
Justice Department prosecutors Nathaniel Edmonds and Peter Koski argued that Ring, a former aide to retired Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., gave public officials expensive meals and exclusive event tickets so that eventually they would pay him back with favors for his clients. Their evidence included Ring's boastful e-mails with other team members.
"Instead of putting money in the public officials' pockets, they were putting expensive lunches and dinners on their plates and putting high-priced drinks in their hands," Koski said in closing arguments.
In one e-mail prosecutors quoted, Ring e-mailed a colleague sitting in a box seat at the NCAA championship basketball tournament with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief of staff, "Glad he got a chance to relax. Now he can pay us back."
Ring was convicted of giving an illegal gratuity to another Ashcroft aide, Robert Coughlin, when he took him to a Washington Wizards-Chicago Bulls basketball game in 2003. Prosecutors said that was to reward Coughlin for contacting an immigration official to help expedite foreign student admissions to a Hebrew school Abramoff had opened. Prosecutors showed jurors a photo during closing arguments of Ring and Coughlin sitting in $250 seats a few rows from courtside while Michael Jordan sank a basket.
He was also convicted of giving bribes to help Indian tribes with casino interests and helping to arrange a $5,000 "no work" job for Doolittle's wife, Julie, as a kickback to the congressman. The Doolittles were named coconspirators in the case but never charged.
The government also presented evidence to show that Ring's actions resulted in his clients receiving $14 million in congressional transportation appropriations and an additional $7 million from the Justice Department to build a jail.
Jurors deliberated for three days after a two-week trial. Wise argued that Ring was only doing his job as a lobbyist by trying to build relationships with federal officials who had sway over issues affecting his clients, even if he sent some "stupid" e-mails.
"What the government wants you to do is find that this man was committing crimes based on office jokes," Wise said in closing arguments.
Several jurors said in interviews after leaving the courtroom that they didn't know much about how lobbying worked before the case, but prosecutors convinced them Ring had crossed the line.
"There's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things," said retired postal worker Tom Bandy.
Bandy and other jurors said there was not a lot of disagreement, but they wanted to take their time to go over all the elements in the 77 pages of instructions they got from the judge.
A Supreme Court decision last June made the prosecutors' job more difficult in the retrial. The justices made it harder to convict under a fraud statute that makes it illegal to deprive the public of the "honest services" of a government official. Ring's conviction is one of the first under that law since the ruling, which required that prosecutors prove bribes or kickbacks were accepted.
Mythili Raman, the No. 2 official in the Justice Department's criminal division, hailed the conviction of another Abramoff associate. "For years, this team of lobbyists schemed to corrupt public officials, and, because of their actions, Americans were denied the honest services of public servants," she said in a statement.
Even though the jurors convicted Ring on most counts, several questioned whether the case was a proper use of government resources.
"I saw it as a waste of time and money, but the law is what it is," said tax accountant Stephen Baker as several fellow jurors nodded in agreement.
Ring did not testify or call any witnesses. Instead his attorney tried to convince the jury that prosecutors had not proven their case. The government officials that Ring was accused of trying to bribe also did not testify — Coughlin and John Albaugh, former chief of staff to ex-Rep. Earnest Istook, R-Okla., have told prosecutors that they no longer believe they were corrupted by the meals and tickets Ring provided.
The three counts that jurors found Ring not guilty of involved gifts to Albaugh. Albaugh, who has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced, had been a star witness for the prosecution in the first trial but was not called in this case after he recanted.