WASHINGTON – A former congressional aide has recanted his testimony in an influence-peddling trial, depriving the government of a key witness in its prosecution of a former lobbyist.
John Albaugh, who was chief of staff to former Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., has told prosecutors he no longer feels he gave favors to clients of Jack Abramoff's firm because lobbyists there gave him free meals and event tickets.
Albaugh testified he had been influenced by the gifts in last year's corruption trial of Abramoff associate Kevin Ring. The jury could not agree on whether Ring was guilty. Prosecutors are scheduled to retry Ring in three weeks.
Attorneys revealed Albaugh's change of heart in a pretrial hearing Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle responded that Albaugh had been the prosecution's "strongest witness" and suggested his switch could be the result of prosecutors pushing witnesses into giving incriminating statements they later regret.
"The longer you go, the fewer witnesses you'll have," Huvelle told prosecutors after hearing about Albaugh. "They really have to do some fancy footwork in this case."
Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds told Huvelle that the case will focus on three lobbyists who worked with Ring and will testify they conspired with him to corrupt public officials.
Albaugh pleaded guilty two years ago to a conspiracy to defraud the House and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution or jeopardize his plea deal. Justice Department officials did not respond to a question about whether Albaugh, who has not been sentenced yet, put his plea deal at risk.
Albaugh faced 18 to 24 months in prison, but that sentence could be reduced based on his cooperation with the government's investigation.
Another potential witness against Ring who later refused to cooperate maintained his plea deal and was spared a jail sentence. Robert Coughlin, an aide to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, insisted he was not influenced to take official actions by meals and tickets Ring gave him, removing himself as a witness for the prosecution in Ring's first trial. Huvelle sentenced Coughlin last year to a month in a halfway house and three years of probation.
Albaugh testified against Ring for three days in the previous trial. He said they had a "corrupt relationship," where he would help Ring's clients get funding on transportation projects that Istook helped oversee. In exchange, Albaugh testified, Ring treated him to dinner at expensive restaurants and gave him event tickets including ones to performances by George Strait, Tim McGraw, Disney on Ice and The Wiggles.
Albaugh now contends he would have done the favors regardless of the gifts because Abramoff's firm was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Ishtook's campaign fund, attorneys said in court Tuesday. Those campaign contributions are legal and Istook was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors used e-mails between Ring and Albaugh as evidence in the first trial, including one in 2002 in which Ring told Albaugh, "You are going to eat free off of our clients." Ring's attorney Andrew Wise told Huvelle he would now move to exclude those e-mails from the case.
Ring also got a boost Tuesday when Huvelle denied a request by three potential defense witnesses to invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
The witnesses are David Ayers, who was Ashcroft's chief of staff at the Justice Department; his wife, Laura Ayers; and former congressional aide Pete Evich. All three invoked the Fifth Amendment in the first trial, but Huvelle said they no longer are at risk of prosecution since the statute of limitations has expired on the actions that are at issue.