Kevin Ring was exuberant. It was Feb. 4, 2002, and Ring, a young member of Jack Abramoff's lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig, was laying plans to attend a Dave Matthews Band concert at the MCI Center. It was to be a celebration.
"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."
Last week, one of those staffers, Robert Coughlin II, 36, pleaded guilty to criminal conflict of interest, becoming the first Justice Department official charged in the four-year-old influence-peddling investigation.But court documents filed in Coughlin's case and e-mails released through congressional investigations are explicit about Team Abramoff's line into the Justice Department: Coughlin was but one of many "friendlies," as they are identified in Coughlin's statement of offense.
A source familiar with the Abramoff probe says the Justice Department is continuing to investigate other former Justice officials. Coughlin and at least two other unnamed Justice officials helped secure a $16.3 million grant for Ring's client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, court documents say. A deputy assistant attorney general had previously approved $9 million for the tribe. One unanswered question is which official at the department overruled that decision, giving the tribe the full amount.
Coughlin has agreed, as part of his plea deal, to cooperate with the investigation. The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General is handling the investigation along with First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Goldberg, a 19-year Justice veteran who worked in the Criminal Division's public integrity section before moving to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore in 2005. A spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General declined to discuss the investigation, as did Goldberg.
Coughlin and Ring, friends from their days as staffers for John Ashcroft when he was a Republican senator from Missouri, exchanged access for favors while Coughlin was a liaison in the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Affairs.
From 2001 to 2003, Coughlin lobbied his colleagues on behalf of Abramoff's tribal clients and helped Ring make contacts in the department. Coughlin was rewarded with more than $4,000 worth of concert tickets, luxury seats at Washington Redskins and Washington Wizards games, and meals at tony restaurants, according to court documents filed last week in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Coughlin faces up to 10 months in prison and a $10,000 fine under the terms of the plea deal. Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle has not set a sentencing date. Coughlin declined to comment through his lawyer, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal partner Joshua Berman.
The Abramoff probe has stained more than a dozen Washington officials, including lobbyists, Capitol Hill staffers and congressmen.
Abramoff, who is serving a 70-month sentence for defrauding clients in Florida, is awaiting sentencing on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in Washington. Prosecutors have repeatedly cited his cooperation in the investigation.
Tony Rudy, who lobbied the Justice Department with Ring, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy in 2006 related to his work for Abramoff. He, too, is cooperating with investigators, according to court documents. He declined to comment through his attorney. Ring has not been charged. He declined to comment through his attorney.
Abramoff's connections on the Hill were so numerous that even members of Congress who didn't know him scoured their records for politically embarrassing links once the scandal broke in 2005. Little attention, however, focused on Team Abramoff's sway in the Justice Department.
But a review of e-mails released by Greenberg Traurig to congressional investigators four years ago shows that Ring, Rudy and other Abramoff associates had friends throughout the department.
In a 2004 e-mail, Ring offered to put in "good words" for Orlando, Fla.-based U.S. Magistrate Judge David Baker with his sources at Main Justice at the request of a Florida-based Greenberg Traurig attorney. Baker was seeking a federal judgeship, though he didn't get it.
"Talked to my friend in the Solicitor General's office at DOJ. He suggested we talk to Dan Bryant, who heads up [Office of Legal Policy] at DOJ," Ring wrote on Feb. 18, 2004.
Bryant, vice president of public policy and governmental affairs at PepsiCo, who headed the Office of Legislative Affairs when Coughlin arrived there in 2001, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
A separate 2006 inspector general's report on Abramoff's dealings with the Guam government stated that Rudy had communicated with then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Carl Thorsen in March 2002 about prospective nominees for the U.S. Attorney post in Guam. Thorsen, now a lobbyist at the American Continental Group, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Ashcroft aides such as David Ayres, the attorney general's chief of staff in the Senate and at the Justice Department, and Lori Sharpe Day -- head of the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison -- show up on a list for tickets lobbyists had requested for a U2 rock concert in 2001 and the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 2002. Both now work at the Ashcroft Group and did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2001, Italia Federici, a former head of a Republican environmental conservative group working for Abramoff, introduced Abramoff to Tom Sansonetti, then-assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Federici later pleaded guilty to giving false statements in the Abramoff investigation. E-mails show that Sansonetti, who served at Main Justice from 2001 to 2005, attended lobbyist dinners organized by Federici and dined with her and J. Steven Griles, then-deputy secretary at the Interior Department, at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures.
When Ring ran into opposition to one of his projects, a new jail for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, in January of 2002, he fired off an e-mail to his boss: "Re: Sansonetti ... Think he might be able to help at Justice?"
Abramoff replied: "Yes! Good idea. Call Italia and ask her to help us with this."
Sansonetti said in an e-mail to Legal Times that while he knew "Abramoff socially, I had no contacts with him or any of his associates on any topic while in my official capacity at DOJ." (Sansonetti's replacement -- Sue Ellen Wooldridge -- resigned in February 2007 amid questions about her undisclosed romantic involvement with Griles, whom she married after he pleaded guilty in the Abramoff case.)
CALLING IN THE BIG GUNS
The Choctaw jail matter, detailed in e-mails and court records, offers a window into how Abramoff's team used its connections at the Justice Department to help its client.
Abramoff's team had successfully lobbied for a congressional earmark for the jail, but the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs held the purse strings. Abramoff wanted $16.3 million; Tracy Henke, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, thought the $9 million her office had approved was adequate.
Her resistance was such that Abramoff convened a strategy session. As described in a Nov. 15, 2001, e-mail, Ring and Rudy's assignment was to "gather intelligence from DOJ on next steps and to assess the impact of political pressure from Congress."
Around that time, Coughlin started briefing Ring on Henke's arguments against the $16 million. Henke, now a senior adviser at the Ashcroft Group, wouldn't be persuaded.
"Going after her directly won't work because she's protected and was placed in that position 'to be a bitch,'" groused Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Todd Boulanger in a Jan. 17, 2002, e-mail to Ring, Abramoff and Rudy.
"I'm not really sure how to approach this," wrote Boulanger, now a senior vice president at Cassidy and Associates, "but it may take a meeting with Ashcroft." Ashcroft's spokeswoman did not respond to a series of e-mailed questions from Legal Times.
Rudy suggested reaching out to then-White House political director Ken Mehlman and David Israelite, then-deputy chief of staff to Ashcroft, to "get this on his radar." Israelite, now president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association, did not respond to questions about Abramoff.
Abramoff appealed to Republican activist Ralph Reed Jr. the next day, asking him to raise the issue with White House adviser Karl Rove ("We really need some serious swat from Karl").
The Justice Department abruptly reversed itself less than two weeks later, awarding the Choctaws the full $16.3 million, according to the statement of offense filed in Coughlin's case.
It's unclear who made the final call. Ring and Coughlin had discussed the prospect that "a more senior DOJ official" would override Henke in November 2001, and Coughlin had also related "a positive conversation he had with a high-ranking DOJ official" about the grant, court papers state.
Henke told Legal Times last week: "The grant was issued with bipartisan congressional direction to the Choctaw tribe." She declined further comment.
Months later, once the grant was finalized, Ring dined with Coughlin and two other Justice Department officials at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures, court records state. "We need to celebrate this issue finally being over," Ring wrote in an e-mail to Coughlin.
The commute was a breeze for Coughlin and the others; Signatures, now D-Acqua, sat about a block and a half away from the Justice Department's headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Editor's note: For more information on Coughlin and the Abramoff case, see the Legal Times April 28 story, "The Tale of a Friendship That Turned Corrupt."