Abramoff Scandal: bigger fish to be caught

September 5, 2009

Things are heating up in the Kevin Ring case. In September 2008, Ring was indicted on ten felony counts for his role as a co-conspirator in the Abramoff scandal.

Before accepting a job as a lobbyist with Abramoff, Ring served as a staffer for former Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) and former Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA). Ring who was intimately involved with the CNMI legislative manipulation schemes was a master of the Abramoff playbook. A June 2008 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a report, Jack Abramoff's Contacts With White House Officials. It depicted Ring's affiliation with Abramoff and his rising career:
According to one e-mail, Kevin Ring served as a “quasi-team leader” for the Abramoff lobbying practice. In 2002 and 2003, [Ring] was named a “Top Rainmaker” by The Hill newspaper in its annual rankings of Washington’s premier lobbyists.” In 1993, Ring began working for Rep. John T. Doolittle, and in 1998 Ring moved to the Senate. At the Senate, Ring served as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights, under the chairmanship of Senator John Ashcroft. He returned to the House a year later to work as the“executive director of the Conservative Action Team … a caucus comprised of 70 House Republicans.”
Ring was called a “rising star on K Street” by The Hill newspaper and a “powerful lobbyist” by The National Journal. Abramoff also thought of Kevin Ring as his rising star, as was documented in an email Jack Abramoff sent to Maya Kara on January 31, 2001 concerning an upcoming visit to the CNMI by the Abramoff team:
Hi Maya. Nice to speak with you today As I mentioned, I will be corning to Saipan on the evening of February 12 and departing the late afternoon of the 14th 1 would be delighted to visit with the Governor and you whenever you are free. Just let me know, I will be checking email prior to my arrival...

In accordance with our discussions, I wanted to provide you with some additional information about the team I brought with me from Preston Gates. With the exception of Mike O'Neil (who will be remaining at Preston to my knowledge) and a few other more minor participants, all of the persons who worked on the CNMI account will be joining me, with the other exception being those of our team who have or are joining the Bush Administration. In addition to myself, the team members include Kevin Ring, Shawn Vasell, Todd Boulanger, Alan Slomowitz, Amy Berger, Michael Scanlon, Pat Wilson and Sara Rizzo. In addition, we have added Tony Rudy; the former Deputy Chief of Staff for Congressman Torn DeLay, who is our biggest supporter on Capitol Hill Tony was very active on behalf of the CNMI and is fluent in all of our issues.
The former members of our team who are now joining President Bush include Pat Pizzella (now chief of staff of the Office of Personnel Management), Dennis Stephens (who is expected to be named as Deputy Chief of Staff for the Interior Department) and Rick Valentine (who is expected to be Assistant Attorney General under AG designate John Ashcroft).
The new client manager, replacing Mike O'Neil, will be Kevin Ring. Kevin is the former chief counsel for Senator Ashcroft from the Judiciary Committee, and was the top staffer for Congressman John Doolittle (another hero for the CNMI), as well as the executive director of the Conservative Action Team, now called the Republican Study Committee, which is the largest Congressional member organizing on the Hill. Kevin is a most talented attorney and was asked by Senator Ashcroft to join him at Justice. Fortunately, Kevin remained with us and is, without question, one of the stars of the lobbying world. Kevin is fluent in each issue and served as an understudy to Mike O'Neil during the period when Mike ran this client matter for us. I am certain Kevin will lead the effort with great success.
If what Abramoff told Kara is true, Ring would have had access and the ear of his former boss, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ring wants a jury trial
Unlike most of the others indicted in the Abramoff scandal, Ring has stubbornly claimed his innocence and has refused a plea deal. The pattern in the Abramoff-related indictments has been that the little fish are indicted, they accept a plea deal and agree to cooperate with the investigators and then a bigger fish is indicted. They in turn accept a plea deal, cooperate with investigators, and it continues on up the chain. (Think former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) Ring, however refuses to admit any guilt and the expected bigger fish have not yet been indicted. Who are they?

Ring's indictment suggests that "Representative 4", former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) and "Representative 5" former Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) and his wife, Julie Doolittle, also prominently mentioned in the Ring indictment and exhibit list entries, were some of the bigger fish sought by the Kevin Ring indictment.

John Albaugh, former chief of staff for Istook pleaded guilty June 2008 for his role in the Abramoff scandal and is cooperating with investigators. He is expected to be a witness in the Ring trial. The Government Exhibit List has 70 exhibits related to Albaugh. He appears to be unwilling to admit guilt as is evidenced by Exhibit A, attached to a motion to strike witnesses introduced by the Ring defense team.

Next week the jury selection for the trial will begin. The Associated Press calls putting his case before the jury a "bold move". Others call it a sure pass to the prison cell considering that tax payers, myself included, are fed up with corruption, back door deals and politicians that can be bought off by lobbyists for a few free meals, tickets and trips.

From the AP:
Prosecutors argue the lavish meals and box seats that Kevin Ring provided government officials were an illegal pay-to-play scheme. Ring says he merely used traditional tools of his trade to build influence.

Ring is making a rare and bold move in putting his case before a jury, considering the public’s distaste for the influence of lobbyists and the cache of Ring’s often sarcastic and chummy e-mails that prosecutors plan to use against him.

Ring is only the second person in the Abramoff investigation to go to trial, which begins Tuesday with jury selection. The other was David Safavian, the government’s former chief procurement officer, who was found guilty of lying to investigators by two separate juries after winning a second trial on appeal. Sixteen other lobbyists and federal officials charged in the influence-trading scandal, including Abramoff and former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, have pleaded guilty in deals with the government rather than take their chance in court.

“How this all works out in front of a jury will be interesting,” said Washington attorney Stan Brand, who has defended other bribery cases. “The e-mails are embarrassing. But the question I have is: Are they as evidence persuasive that somebody committed a crime? It’s one thing to take officials on a golf trip to Scotland (as Abramoff did). A meal or a ticket to an event isn’t a trip to Scotland.”

Ring, a 38-year-old father of two from suburban Kensington, Md., is charged with 10 felonies, including several with penalties up to 20 years in prison. The prosecutors charge Ring conspired with other Abramoff lobbyists to secretly give “a stream of things of value” to federal officials in return for favorable treatment. The charges include lying about his knowledge that Abramoff arranged a $5,000-a-month consulting job for the wife of former Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.
David Ayres to plead the Fifth

Documents released this week indicate that David Ayres intends to exercise his Fifth Amendment Rights against self-incrimination if called on to testify in the Ring trial. Ayres was the chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and was campaign manager for Ashcroft in his winning 1994 Senate bid. He is presently the CEO of the Ashcroft Group.

According to Ring documents, Ayres freed up $16 million in Department of Justice grants for the jail for Abramoff client, the Choctaw tribe of Mississippi. Politico reports:
In 2002, DOJ officials were balking at the Choctaws' request for $16 million in grant money to build a jail. Ayres, at the request of Ring and other lobbyists working for the now imprisoned Abramoff, approved the grant over internal DOJ objections, according to Ring's defense team.

According to documents filed by Ring's attorneys in preparation for Ring's upcoming trial, Ayres and his wife were then given free tickets to a sporting event and "a set of tickets to a later event."

As a senior DOJ official, it would have been improper for Ayres to accept those tickets under gift rules covering executive branch staff. In 2008, another Justice Department official, Robert Coughlin, pleaded guilty to accepting more than $4,000 of meals and sports tickets from Ring and other Abramoff lobbyists.

Ring's lawyers want to subpoena Ayres and his wife, Laura, to discuss the incident, but the Ayreses are invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to offer criminally incriminating information against themselves, Ring's attorneys say in court filings.
From the Motion for Relief:
Counsel for Mr. Ayres and counsel for Ms. Ayres have indicated that each would invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege if subpoeaned. Mr. Ring’s constitutional right to compulsory process thus appears at first blush to conflict with the Fifth Amendment privileges likely to be invoked by Mr. and Mrs. Ayres.

If a true conflict exists between the right to self-incrimination and the right to compulsory process, a witness cannot be compelled by the defense to testify without a grant of immunity.
Laura Blackann to testify?
The motion also states:
A third witness, Laura Blackann, also falls into this category. The government has indicated it will advise Mr. Ring’s counsel by noon on Thursday, September 3, 2009 if it will grant Ms. Blackann immunity.
Laura Blackann (formerly Laura Brookshire) is the wife of Trevor Blackann who was indicted in November 2008 and pled guilty. Trevor Blackann was the former staffer of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX, and Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO). He is cooperating with federal investigators according to court documents.

Laura Blackann was also the former spokesperson for John Doolittle (R-CA) who is also under investigation.

Why would the DOJ give Blackann and the Ayres immunity for their testimonies? Are they insignificant minnows in this scheme? Maybe in the case of Laura Blackann and Ayres wife, but I doubt that David Ayres would be given immunity. He seems to be a key player.

John Ashcroft, the DOJ and the Abramoff Scandal

Some of the bigger fish may have worked at the U.S. Department of Justice. Ashroft has many ties to the Abramoff lobbying team.

In 2008 Harper's Magazine featured an article by Scott Horton that detailed how the Bush DOJ worked to block disclosure and connections of the Bush Administration and White House to the scandal. From the article:
Might there be a reason why the Abramoff investigation ran out of gas and plummeted into the ocean in some undisclosed location? Well, the connections to Rove and Bush are obvious. But even more troubling are the Abramoff ties to the Justice Department itself, particularly in the form of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Here are just some of the interesting intersections:

  • In 1997, John Mashburn left his position as Legislative Director for Senator John Ashcroft and signed on to lobby for Preston Gates, where Jack Abramoff was the Government Affairs Counselor. Mashburn very quickly became enmeshed in the dirtiest of the Abramoff dealings, including the Northern Marianas, Mississippi Choctaw and Future of Puerto Rico accounts.
  • In 1997, a group called Toward Tradition, whose chairman was Jack Abramoff, hired Ashcroft as a guest speaker.
  • In 1997, another Abramoff client paid for a trip to the Pacific by another of Ashcroft’s legislative assistants.
  • In 1999, Ashcroft participated in the famous Abramoff-organized junket to the Tartan Tournament at St. Andrew’s, Scotland.
  • Jack Abramoff was a major contributor to Ashcroft’s 2000 re-election effort, in which Ashcroft was defeated by a dead man.
  • Kevin Ring, another key Ashcroft insider, who advised Ashcroft on judicial nominations among other things, quickly emerged as a member of Jack Abramoff’s inner circle.
  • As questions were raised about Abramoff’s illicit dealings in the Northern Marianas, and the U.S. Attorney there began a probe, he was promptly removed from office–a step which only Ashcroft could have implemented.
That U.S. Attorney was Fred Black. He was investigating Abramoff's dealing with former Guam Governor Carl Guiterrez and had co-authored the 2002 Security Report that recommended a federal takeover. Black served as acting Attorney General for Guam and the NMI since 1991.

The 2002 post 9-11 Security Report of Guam and the NMI was blocked by Abramoff for years because it called for a federal takeover of immigration.

Bloomberg reported:
In an Oct, 1, 2001, e-mail to the Marianas government, Abramoff said he was alerted to the pending immigration report by the Justice Department chief of staff, whom he hosted in his luxury box at a Washington Redskins football game. He said he would pass on to the government any information he received from the official. At the time, David Ayres was chief of staff.

In the e-mail, Abramoff warned that some "bad guys'' in Justice had been saying the commonwealth "if not taken over, will be a major entry point for terrorists. This, of course, is patently ridiculous and we have been working to counter this.''

Abramoff said he would meet with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. One of Abramoff's associates was Kevin Ring, who joined the firm after serving as counsel to a Judiciary subcommittee that Ashcroft chaired when he served in the U.S. Senate.

"We'll hope the higher ups will take some time to squash this on their own,'' Abramoff wrote.
The 2001 billing records confirm meetings between Ring and DOJ officials concerning the report.

The security report was publicly released on June 6, 2006 by Rep. George Miller (R-CA), former Rep. Hilda Solis (R-CA) (now Secretary of Labor) and Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) introduced the Human Dignity Act on the steps of the Cannon Building. I was there.

The CNMI and Kevin Ring had a very tight relationship. The 2001 billing records and correspondence between A-team and Maya Kara and other CNMI officials indicate that CNMI leaders were working as a team to get CNMI-friendly people in positions in U.S. Departments to help block federalization and the minimum wage.

In the 2001 billing records alone Ring's name appears over 250 times! What did the taxpayers get for their millions in lobbying fees? Among other things the CNMI was billed for the Abramoff team's attempts to land convicted felon Mark Zachares a position at the Department of Interior; for 18 of Ring's contacts with DOJ officials including Coughlin; and for 19 contacts with former Rep. John Doolittle or his staff.

The 1997 trip that was referred to in the article was a CNMI junket. From Fired Up America:
In December 1997, Abramoff's client, the government of the CNMI paid for a trip for several GOP aides to visit the Mariana Islands. Among those staffers was Lori Sharpe, a Legislative Assistant in Senator John Ashcroft's office.

Also making the same trip was Leo Giacometto, then-Chief of Staff to Senator Conrad Burns. In 2003, Giacometto would return to the Islands as part of a lobbying team headed by former Ashcroft Justice Department official Juan Carlos Benitez. The team headed by Benitez was awarded a $125,000 per month contract to lobby for the Guam Economic Development and Commerce Authority.
Sure enough, in the 1997 billing records the CNMI was charged for a meeting Abramoff team lobbyist Patrick Pizzella had with Lori Sharpe:
04/17/97 PP 3.50 hours Confer with D. Stephens re: CNMI travel plans; phones calls re: potential Memorial recess trip to CNMI with Lori Sharpe (Ashcroft office)...
So why would a U.S. Senator speak at an obscure organization's event? Toward Traidtion's president was Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Abramoff's longtime friend.

Daniel and brother David were both involved in the CNMI-Abramoff scandal. The Seattle Times reported:
Abramoff's Marianas connection, of course, has been in the news for a long while. But recently his involvement there has circled back to Lapin—David Lapin, that is, Daniel's brother, a Los Angeles businessman. David Lapin had a $1.2 million no-bid Northern Marianas government contract that was arranged by Abramoff during his Preston Gates days, to conduct ethics-in-government programs there. But near as anyone in the Marianas can determine today, David Lapin failed to provide any services, The New York Times reported April 28.
According to another Seattle Times article, Abramoff was chairman of the board for Toward Traditions and had joined Lapin in inviting Ashcroft to speak at the event. Abramoff also used Towards Traditions to launder money and was involved in a scandal involving Tom Delay, former Republican Rep from Texas and current contestant on Dancing With the Stars. (You can't make this stuff up.) From the Seattle Times:
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff funneled money through a Mercer Island religious foundation as he tried to influence a top aide to Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay, according to his guilty plea last week to corruption charges.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin confirmed Sunday it was his foundation, Toward Tradition, that took $50,000 from two Abramoff clients and, at Abramoff's suggestion, used it to hire the aide's wife to organize a conference for the group.

Lapin said he and his board had no idea the money was part of Abramoff's vast scheme to influence Congress and, in this case, stop bills to raise postal rates and ban online lotteries.

The business interests that paid the money in 2000 and 2001 said they didn't know it would be used to hire the aide's wife.

The foundation is a conservative Judeo-Christian group where Abramoff once served as chairman of the board. It's referred to only as a "non-profit entity" in Abramoff's plea agreement.

Lapin, in an interview Sunday and in a memo he sent to board members, said Lisa Rudy, wife of former DeLay aide Tony Rudy, was hired to organize a Washington, D.C., conference for Toward Tradition.
Former Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) appears in the 1997 CNMI billing records 11 times. Still, the Abramoff team left other footprints that led to the DOJ. Kevin Ring appeared to want to repay the folks in the DOJ who assisted with the $16 million jail deal. In an email Ring sent to Padgett Wilson said:
"I have the suite filling up with DOJ staffers that just got our clients $16 million," he gushed in an e-mail to his colleague, Padgett Wilson. "Come to the show, baby."

"Are there any tickets left?" asked Wilson, now director of governmental affairs for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. He then submitted: "And as for those DOJ staffers, those guys should get anything they want for the rest of the time they are in office -- opening day tickets, Skins v. Giants, oriental massages, hookers, whatever."
One of those guys from DOJ that helped Ring was Robert Coughlin who was indicted last year and plead guilty. In the 61-page Government's Exhibit List there are 60 emails between Ring and Coughlin, many dealing with the jail deal.

Ann Copland former staffer of Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) who was also indicted last year and pleaded guilty has 31 emails on the Government Exhibit List.

Kevin Ring doesn't want any of their emails submitted as evidence. His attorneys filed a motion to strike all government exhibits containing emails and other hearsay statements of Robert Coughlin and Ann Copland. They further objected to the government being allowed to add as witnesses Coughlin co-workers at the DOJ: Daniel J. Bryant, Sue Daly and Gregory P. Harris. They filed a supplement to their motion to strike that includes Exhibit A, which is a letter from the US Attorneys concerning testimony of Robert Coughlin. Like Albaugh he is reluctant to take full responsibility for his acts.

The Government Exhibit List includes the plea agreements of Coughlin, Copland,Albaugh, Boulanger and Voltz and immunity packages of Lopez and Vassel all expected to testify in the trial.

The Ring defense also submitted a motion limine "to prevent speculation and other improper testimony regarding purported value of gifts":
The government’s proffered evidence suggests that some of its witnesses may stray into forbidden speculation and guesswork when testifying on the question of valuation. Mr. Ring seeks an order from this Court prohibiting the government from providing any testimony concerning the valuation of any gifts whose foundation is not clearly stated, reasonable and accurate. For meals and beverages, such testimony must include a valuation that includes only the portion of the meal or beverage received by the public official. For tickets, any valuation testimony must be based on the face value of the ticket, and not some attempt to gauge value through a comparison to other tickets. In short, the Court should order the government to present valuation evidence, if at all, only through the presentation of competent, reasonable and non-speculative evidence, and to conversely refrain from presenting speculation and other improper testimony regarding the purported value of gifts received by public officials in this case.
CNMI's Willie Tan gave Abramoff hundreds of thousands of dollars to for the purchase of these gifts used to bribe members of Congress, staffers and clients with tickets to sporting events and concerts. On March 28, 2000 Abramoff sent Willie Tan an email requesting payment for suites at Camden Yards, MCI Center, and JKC stadium. The bill indicates that the total was $223,679 and Arbamoff was asking for the quarterly fee of $55,919.75. (See this post for more about the Abramoff-Tan-CNMI relationship.)

With each new Abramoff indictment, more of the co-conspirators and corrupt parties are revealed. More indictments will be coming.

Read more about Kevin Ring case here:
Abramoff Scandal: Trail leading to the CNMI
Kevin Ring Exhibits: CNMI Connection Exposed Through Emails
Orders on Motions in Kevin Ring Case
Ruling in Kevin Ring Case: Charges Stand
Kevin Ring objects to Government evidence about drinking and strip clubs
Doolittles further implicated in Ring documents
Doolittle Next to Fall
Kevin Ring Indicted

Visit also the Anti Corruption Republican for analysis on this and all Abramoff-related corruption cases.

Photos, from page top to bottom: Kevin Ring; John Doolittle, Kerrie and Kevin Ring and Julie Doolittle; David Ayres; John Ashcroft; Daniel Lapin; and Ann Copland.

Wendy L. Doromal ©2009


Anonymous said...

Thanks for compiling the Ring-CNMI connections in comprehensive posts!