The Justice Department lost one of its own to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal Tuesday as a former high-ranking department attorney pleaded guilty to conflict of interest.
Robert E. Coughlin II admitted in federal court in Washington that he accepted meals, concert tickets and luxury seats at Redskins and Wizards games from a lobbyist while helping the lobbyist and his clients. He pleaded guilty to a single conflict-of-interest charge and faces up to 10 months in prison under a plea deal with the government.
The lobbyist is identified in court documents only as "Lobbyist A," but details make clear that he is Kevin Ring, a former member of Abramoff's lobbying team who also is under investigation.
Ring was friends with Coughlin and lobbied him on issues mentioned in the court papers, including money for a jail for the Choctaw tribe, The Associated Press has previously reported. Coughlin obliged with insider tips, running interference with colleagues, and other help, the court papers said.
Abramoff, the disgraced GOP lobbyist, appears in the documents as "Lobbyist B," but plays mostly a bit part as Ring's demanding boss, pressuring him for action on the Choctaw jail and other issues. The court papers say Coughlin "never had a substantive conversation with Lobbyist B."
Coughlin, now 36 and living in Texas, accepted the gifts from 2001 to 2003 while working on legislative affairs for the Justice Department. He later became deputy chief of staff of the department's criminal division -- the same division handling the Abramoff probe -- before he resigned a year ago, citing personal reasons.
"Guilty your honor," Coughlin said in a clear voice when Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle asked him how he would plead. He made no comment as he left court holding hands with his wife.
In a statement later, Coughlin's attorney Joshua Berman said, "Mr. Coughlin is deeply saddened by these events and looks forward to focusing his attention on his family and moving forward with his life."
Ring's attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.
Because of Coughlin's ties at Justice Department headquarters, prosecutors in Maryland investigated his conduct.
As part of his plea, Coughlin agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation. He has already offered substantial information about Ring's behavior, based on details in court papers, and the papers also refer to at least two other unnamed Justice Department officials who ate out on Ring's dime.
The documents detail Ring's attempts to get $16.3 million for the jail for the Choctaw tribe, a major Abramoff client. Coughlin pulled strings to make it happen, including getting more sympathetic officials involved.
"CHA-CHING!!!" Ring e-mailed Coughlin in June 2002 after learning the grant would come through without competitive bidding. "Thanks is not strong enough. We need to celebrate this issue finally being over." He then treated Coughlin and two other Justice Department officials to lunch at Signatures, the swanky Capitol Hill restaurant Abramoff once owned.
The government estimated the value of the gifts Coughlin received at $6,180; Coughlin put it at $4,800.
Coughlin failed to report the gifts on his financial disclosure forms. He also discussed with Ring the prospect of going to work at Greenberg Traurig, the law firm where Abramoff worked, while doing favors for the lobbyist.
Coughlin's cooperation is expected to be ongoing and Huvelle did not set a sentencing date.
The Justice Department probe of Abramoff and his team of lobbyists has led to convictions of a dozen people, including former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles. At least one current member of Congress, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., remains under investigation.
Ring worked for Doolittle, who's retiring from Congress at the end of this year, before going to work for Abramoff.
Abramoff is serving prison time for a criminal case out of Florida and has not yet been sentenced on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the influence-peddling scandal in Washington.
Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.
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