WASHINGTON – A federal judge is proceeding with the trial of a junior member of Jack Abramoff's lobbying team, despite last-minute wrangling over whether his fundraising help for members of Congress was part of a corruption scheme.
Kevin Ring, the only member of the Abramoff team still facing prosecution, went on trial Monday for the second time on charges that he lavished expensive meals and event tickets on federal officials in exchange for favors for their clients. Ring's first trial ended a year ago with jurors unable to reach a unanimous decision on his guilt or innocence.
As the second trial began with a three-day jury selection process, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle sharply admonished prosecutors for trying to change their case just before trial because they lost a key Capitol Hill witness. "It's a very sad day that the government should be stretching at this time to come up with new arguments," she told prosecutors after potential jurors were escorted out of her courtroom.
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. Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and a dozen other government officials also were convicted in the corruption ring.
Ring's defense has been that he was only using the traditional tools of the lobbying trade to advance his client's interests. His resources included an upscale Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant owned by Abramoff and box seats at event venues to entertain government officials and hold fundraisers for politicians' re-election campaigns.
Whenever the fundraising was mentioned in the first trial, Huvelle would turn to jurors and tell them there is nothing illegal about lobbyists helping politicians raise money and that they should not consider fundraising as a factor in the case against Ring.
This time, prosecutors argued in a filing last week, those instructions should be changed since fundraisers or contributions can be illegal if they are given in return for a public official's promise to take official action.
Huvelle chided prosecutors for taking "a totally different position." She said they were only doing so because a key witness, former congressional aide John Albaugh, left them "high and dry" by recanting his testimony against Ring.
Albaugh, former chief of staff to ex-Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., testified in the first trial that he would help Ring's clients get funding on transportation projects after Ring treated him to meals out and tickets to performances by George Strait, Tim McGraw and Disney on Ice.
But Albaugh recently told prosecutors that he now feels he did the favors not because of the gifts, but because Abramoff's firm was raising tens of thousands of dollars for Istook's campaign fund.
Justice Department prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds told Huvelle that Ring's fundraising help has been part of their case since the indictment and the jury instructions were legally incorrect in the first trial. He said they would show that Ring and the lobbyists he worked with had an explicit agreement to raise money for lawmakers in exchange for the legislation their clients wanted.
He mentioned an e-mail that Abramoff sent to Ring and other members of the team after he got a call from Istook thanking him for the use of a skybox at FedEx Field for a fundraiser. Abramoff wrote that team members should "load up our entire Christmas list" because Istook "had basically asked what we want in the transportation bill." Istook has never been charged with a crime.
Huvelle agreed with Edmonds that the jury instructions should be modified to reflect that contributions can be illegal in some cases. And she denied a defense motion to throw out the indictment because of the prosecutors' new request. But said she would not allow prosecutors to change their case when they did not object to her instructions in the first trial, saying to do so would be "totally offensive to any sense of fairness."