Years into the scandal, a protege of Jack Abramoff is the first member of the imprisoned lobbyist's team going before a jury to fight federal corruption charges that will put their very profession on trial.
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.
In exchange, the prosecutors charge, the officials Ring cultivated helped advance his professional interests _ reclaiming a piece of New Mexico land for an Indian tribe he was working for, securing federal grants for his clients and getting expedited review of Abramoff application to admit foreigners to a school he was trying to start.
Ring initially cooperated with investigators. He sat for more than 100 hours of interviews. But his attorneys say that ended when prosecutors insisted he plead guilty and implicate others. Instead, Ring insisted he did nothing illegal and decided to fight.
A former aide to two powerful Republican lawmakers, Doolittle and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, Ring in 1999 joined more than a dozen former Capitol Hill aides whom Abramoff lured to work with him.
The prosecutors plan to introduce e-mails that show Ring shared the Abramoff team's zeal to bring in clients and build government contacts who would help them.
Ring helped spread their firm's perks to officials helped or might in the future. Ring and other Abramoff lobbyists hosted fundraisers for lawmakers seeking re-election. They gave staffers tickets to take their friends to watch professional sports, in-demand concerts featuring Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and family events such as the Wiggles and Disney on Ice. They bought them expensive meals, at times spending more than $2,000 on a feast for an entire Capitol Hill office at Signatures, an Abramoff-owned restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue
between the Capitol and the White House.
"You are going to eat free off our clients,'' Ring wrote in March 2002 to former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook's chief of staff, John Albaugh, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the House.
In October 2000, Ring wrote Abramoff an e-mail describing Doolittle as "such a good soldier, doing everything we asked of him. ... I know you are great about making sure he gets his fair share of contributions, but if (client) is feeling generous, this would be a very opportune time to get something'' to him, according to the indictment.
However lucrative the entertaining and donations were, Ring argues there was nothing illegal about them. His actions came before Congress passed a 2007 law, partially in response to the Abramoff scandal, that strengthened lobbyist disclosure requirements and further restricted gift-giving to lawmakers and their staffs.
In court documents, Ring's lawyers argue that he never made any agreement to provide gifts in exchange for their official action.
"All the indictment does is list drinks, meals, and entertainment over a four-year period and issues relevant to Mr. Ring's clients upon which he lobbied federal officials and sought official actions,'' they wrote.
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who has represented lobbyists and has written a handbook on gift rules, said the Supreme Court has found that gift-giving shouldn't be a crime unless it can be directly connected to an official action.
“It's just how business is done in the world, not just in Washington, but the world,'' she said. "Getting to know people in a social setting-not just a business setting - that's how the world works in real life.”
But she acknowledged Ring is taking a risk. Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit group Democracy21 that tries to counter the influence of money in politics, added, “Claiming that you are doing the normal lobbying practices in Washington may or may not be true, depending on the facts, but in any event don't justify the legitimacy of the activities.”