WASHINGTON – Two former top Justice Department officials emerged Wednesday as figures in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal as prosecutors disclosed plans to turn over some of the officials' correspondence to defense attorneys preparing for trial in the case.
The officials are former Solicitor General Paul Clement and David Ayres, one-time chief of staff to former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Clement and Ayres were among Justice Department officials in e-mail correspondence with Kevin Ring, a former team Abramoff lobbyist and Capitol Hill aide who's facing trial on 10 counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, bribery and fraud.
Ring is accused of trying to get lawmakers and government officials to help him and his clients by giving them gifts such as sports tickets and meals.
Clement and Ayres were referenced by title but not by name at a federal court hearing in Ring's case Wednesday.
There's no public indication that either Clement or Ayres is implicated in wrongdoing. Ayres' attorney did not immediately return a call for comment and a message left at Clement's office at Georgetown Law School, where he is a visiting professor, was not immediately returned.
At Wednesday's hearing, prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle of plans to turn over "several million pages" of documents to Ring's attorneys, including correspondence with Clement, Ayres and other former Justice Department officials.
The charges against Ring include an episode in which he allegedly lobbied Justice Department officials for money to build a jail on a reservation for a tribal client. One of the officials involved — Robert Coughlin, former deputy chief of staff of the Justice Department's criminal division — already has pleaded guilty to criminal conflict of interest in the case.
Ring knew Clement, Ayres, Coughlin and others because they all worked for Ashcroft when Ashcroft was a Republican senator from Missouri, before he became attorney general in 2001.
William Welch, head of the Justice Department's public integrity division, was in court Wednesday but he declined afterward to comment on the status of the former Justice officials in the case.
Ring, who's pleaded not guilty, had previously worked for Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., who remains under investigation. The wide-ranging Abramoff investigation has netted 13 guilty pleas from former lobbyists and government officials and one former congressman, GOP Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.
There was discussion Wednesday about how Ring's attorneys will get access to information they need to prepare for trial without disclosing documents related to national security, which prosecutors said may exist in electronic vaults where e-mails by Clement and Ayres are stored. The attorneys and prosecutors discussed pursuing a "protective order" to keep the information confidential.
Also on Wednesday, Huvelle denied a motion by Ring's attorney, Richard Hibey, to transfer or reassign the case. Hibey said he sought the move because part of his defense would attack the reasoning behind the plea deals that Huvelle has agreed to, but Huvelle said she didn't see a problem.
No trial date was set. Huvelle said it would take a long time to go through all the possible evidence first. Prosecutors predicted a four-to-six week trial.