WASHINGTON – Kevin Ring, the only lobbyist from the ill-reputed Jack Abramoff team still facing prosecution, is once again putting his fate before a jury tasked with considering whether his practice of cultivating relationships in fancy restaurants and arena box seats amounted to a crime.
Ring's retrial is the last unresolved case against an associate of Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist in Washington who was convicted of corruption charges along with a congressman and a dozen other government officials his group tried to influence.
While Abramoff and four other members of his lobbying team have pleaded guilty to federal crimes in agreements with prosecutors, Ring is the only member trying to beat the charges in court.
The first trial ended a year ago with a jury that couldn't reach a unanimous decision on his guilt or innocence on eight counts alleging Ring showered expensive meals and event tickets on federal officials in return for favors for Team Abramoff's clients. The prosecutors' job has not gotten any easier with the loss of a key witness from Capitol Hill and a recent Supreme Court decision that could make such corruption cases harder to prove.
Ring's attorney Andrew Wise of the firm Miller & Chevalier said jurors told him after the first trial that the closest they came to convicting Ring was eight out of 12 votes on some counts.
The jurors who wanted to acquit "just didn't see a link between the gifts and the acts and they saw this as traditional lobbying," said Wise.
Prosecutors argued Ring, who turns 40 on Tuesday and was a former aide to California Republican Rep. John Doolittle, had a long-term scheme to give gifts to public officials until eventually they would pay him back with favors for his clients. Their evidence included Ring's boastful e-mails with other team members, jokingly describing their team as playing "sugar daddy" or "bullies" toward public officials.
One of the prosecution's leading witnesses was John Albaugh, former chief of staff to former Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who testified he would help Ring's clients get funding on transportation projects after Ring treated him to meals out and tickets to performances like George Strait, Tim McGraw and Disney on Ice.
But this time prosecutors don't plan to put Albaugh on the witness stand because he recently told them he had an "ah-ha" moment and realized that he wasn't giving favors to Abramoff clients because of the gifts. He said he did the favors because Abramoff's firm was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Ishtook's campaign fund.
Most of the felony counts that Ring is facing are for honest services fraud, a charge used frequently in corruption cases against politicians and corporate executives. The law was designed to criminalize various techniques that might be used to deprive the public of the "honest services" of a government official.
But the honest services law was weakened by a Supreme Court decision in June. Reviewing a conviction of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, the high court ruled that prosecutors must prove defendants accepted bribes or kickbacks to get a conviction.
Justice Department officials declined to comment about the impending retrial. But prosecutors have argued in court that the Skilling decision will not affect their case because Ring's gifts of meals and tickets were bribes.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle declined to dismiss the honest services charges against Ring after the Skilling decision, but said the case "is filled with challenges" and will be difficult for the jury.