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Kevin Ring and Robert Coughlin II became friends on the bottom rung in Washington. They met in 1992, both barely into their 20s, and landed jobs on the Hill. The two bounced around to different jobs and fell out of contact, but they reunited on the staff of Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) in 1999. It was the last time either would work in a congressional office: Ring lit out for downtown in 1999, and Coughlin followed Ashcroft to the Justice Department in 2001. This time, however, they kept in touch — and that’s when the trouble started. The relationship between Ring and Coughlin became the basis of a deal last week in which Coughlin pleaded guilty to a criminal corruption charge and agreed to cooperate in the long-running investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Coughlin faces up to10 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. “Bob accepted responsibility for the conflict of interest,” says Coughlin’s lawyer, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal partner Joshua Berman. “He is truly saddened by these events, and he is turning his attention toward his family and his future.” Not much had to change in Coughlin’s relationship with Ring for everything to go awry. As Hill staffers, the men “socialized together over meals and drinks, sports and golf,” the prosecutors’ statement of offense reads. As a lobbyist and a DOJ official, the two men did much the same — but with Ring’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, now picking up the check. Despite Coughlin’s role in securing business intelligence and millions of dollars for Greenberg Traurig’s clients, he never got anything a Justice Department staffer couldn’t have bought for himself — the value somewhere between $4,800 and $6,000. While Coughlin received gifts after many of his official actions on behalf of the lobbyist, in some of the e-mails referenced by prosecutors he comes across as someone just out to help a buddy. When Ring was looking to keep a client busy, he asked Coughlin to meet with him to “fill this guy’s schedule.” “Sure. Let me know the time and place,” Coughlin responded. He did favors as basic as finding out how to file documents with DOJ’s Antitrust Division in the wake of the 2001 anthrax scare. In practice, however, Coughlin served as a de facto member of “Team Abramoff.” But according to prosecutors, Coughlin never knew that he was one of Ring’s most valued sources in the Justice Department, or, as prosecutors would later discover, that Ring billed clients for their social outings. Whatever the circumstances of their friendship might have been when the two men first met, their relationship started to revolve around Coughlin’s position at Justice. When Coughlin was temporarily assigned to a job where he wasn’t in a position to help Ring, the lobbyist “abruptly curtailed buying him meals, drinks, and tickets — only to reconnect as soon as the detail ended and Coughlin returned to Main Justice,” the prosecutors’ statement of offense reads. BAND OF BROTHERS Coughlin’s jump from the Hill to Main Justice in March 2001 occurred the same month that Abramoff’s team found itself needing some help from the Justice Department. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a Greenberg Traurig client, wanted $16.3 million to build a jail, but Justice would only cough up $9 million. So Ring got in touch with Coughlin and invited him to dinner. That Ring would seek Coughlin’s help was not remarkable — his friend’s new job in the Justice Department’s legislative affairs office explicitly included working with lobbyists. And Coughlin wasn’t the only person Ring turned to at Main Justice. Ring was in touch with at least two other officials, according to court documents. By Coughlin’s own estimation, Justice was littered with appointees willing to champion policy decisions because of political ties. Coughlin identified and volunteered for one of the first tasks on the jail grant: running interference with a Democratic-leaning colleague who was handling it. On April 19, Coughlin offered to attend a Justice Department meeting later in the day about the jail funding — and accepted an invitation to dinner that same evening with Ring and his wife at Olive’s. Ring used his Greenberg Traurig expense account to settle the tab. Coughlin stayed committed to getting the job done. The following week, a thank-you e-mail from Coughlin to Ring turned into a full-blown offer of assistance. “Maybe we could come [up] with some strategy to make sure they get the rest of the money,” Coughlin wrote. Soon after, court documents state, he helped set up a meeting for Ring with a politically appointed “friendly” who might have some clout. The assistance was met with yet another dinner invitation. But Ring couldn’t close the deal on his own. By November, he e-mailed Coughlin and two other Justice officials to say that the jail funding was at “a crisis point” and that Abramoff was pressuring him heavily. “PLEASE let me know how to make this happen,” he pleaded. Coughlin came through. A day later, he told Ring “about a positive conversation he had with a high-ranking DOJ official” and in the coming months, Coughlin kept at it, passing colleagues information fed to him by Ring about the jail grant request and keeping his lobbyist friend up to date on the project’s status. Whether through Coughlin’s doing or not, the Justice Department reversed itself and awarded the full $16.3 million at the end of January 2002. Five months later, it granted a waiver of competitive bids on the project. Ring’s reaction, e-mailed under the header “Choctaw: CHA-CHING!!!!” straddled the line between a thank-you note and a congratulation to a business partner. “We need to celebrate,” Ring wrote, but there’s no indication that lining up the $7.3 million got Coughlin anything more than a free lunch at Signatures — Abramoff’s restaurant — with two other Justice staffers a few days later. Earlier that spring, Coughlin had talked with Ring about landing a job at Greenberg Traurig, though nothing ever came of it. His career at Justice was taking off: After barely a year on the job, he was promoted to deputy director of the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison. Ironically, the clearest trade of gifts for official actions involved neither a client nor money. In February 2003, Ring asked Coughlin to do a personal favor for Abramoff: Could he speed up a review of the Eshkol Academy, a private school Abramoff founded, so that foreign students could get student visas? Coughlin got it done simply by forwarding the message to colleagues in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. When Ring wrote to Coughlin to thank him on behalf of Abramoff, Coughlin made a move. “Hey man. I have a favor to ask. Any way I can hit you up for Wizards tickets (4) on the 15th and 18th of March?” Ring obliged.
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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