Trial Starts for Ex-Hill Aide Ring
Federal jurors deciding the fate of Congressional-aide-turned-lobbyist Kevin Ring must determine in coming weeks whether he is the “sugar daddy— who federal prosecutors say colluded to secure federal appropriations by doling out “goodies— on Capitol Hill, or the “policy wonk— who defense attorneys say may have misused his expense account to feed and entertain his friends, but did not violate federal laws.
In opening arguments Friday, the two sides presented starkly different portraits of Ring, an aide to then-Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), now on trial as a result of the influence-peddling investigation of his one-time boss, Jack Abramoff.
Ring is charged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with 10 counts of violating federal laws, including bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud for providing gifts to public officials in exchange for official acts. He has denied wrongdoing.
Federal prosecutors, in an hourlong presentation, characterized Ring, following Abramoff’s example, as a “corruptor,— a lobbyist who violated the normal bounds of the profession by seeking to “tip— Congressional aides and lawmakers in exchange for millions of dollars in federal funds.
“Kevin Ring [was] a lobbyist in name but a corruptor in reality,— prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds told jurors.
“This case is not about legal lobbying,— Edmonds later continued. “This case is about what Team Abramoff did that other lobbyists did not do.—
Edmonds focused heavily on the meals, sporting events and concert tickets provided to Congressional aides, as well as executive branch employees.
“They didn’t hand out wads of cash, but they did hand out other valuable things,— Edmonds said, estimating “Team Abramoff— distributed up to $1 million a year in event tickets.
Edmonds referenced numerous e-mails between Ring and other members of “Team Abramoff,— including former Congressional aide and fellow lobbyist Todd Boulanger, who is expected to testify in the case.
In one e-mail, Ring states that the lobby firm “like[s] immoral pond scum,— and in another he refers to himself as a “sugar daddy.— Edmonds acknowledged the statement may have been made in jest but told jurors it is still grounded in reality.
“This is about Kevin Ring intentionally violating the law … to corrupt the system, to help himself and to help his clients to millions of dollars from the U.S. government,— Edmonds said.
But Ring’s defense team argued that the former Congressional aide never violated federal laws, even if some of the lobbying practices in place during the 2002-2004 time period appear distasteful to jurors.
“You are going to hear about things that absolutely should be crimes, but they were not,— Wise said. “Kevin Ring played by the rules.—
The defense team also asserted that many of the e-mails cited by the government are exaggerations of the lobbyists’ relationships and contacts, and are often “embarrassing, sophomoric … downright ignorant.—
“You’re going to have to bring your common sense to some of these e-mails,— lead defense attorney Andrew Wise told the 17-member jury.
Wise asserted that Ring often overplayed his contacts’ status when requesting tickets to sporting events or concerts, in an effort to justify the demand to Abramoff.
“Lying to your boss about how you use your expense account is not a federal crime,— Wise said.
He also shifted criticism to Congressional aides who sought the tickets, referring to an e-mail from one former Senate aide who requested tickets to numerous events.
“The sense of entitlement and the degree to which this stuff was out there will disgust you,— Wise told the jury.
Wise also sought to downplay the distribution of those tickets and expensive meals, arguing that even if such gifts violated House and Senate ethics rules in place at that time, those violations would not have triggered federal law.
“The Senate and House gift rules were ethical violations. … They could get sanctioned, but it wasn’t a crime,— Wise said.
He also refuted the government’s claims that Ring and other members of “Team Abramoff— sought to conceal the distribution of their gifts to aides, often excluding individual names from expense reports.
“The only way this entertainment could have been more public is if it was a picnic in the FBI courtyard,— Wise said, referring to the public nature of the concerts and sporting events.
The trial is scheduled to continue today with testimony from Neil Volz, another lobbyist on “Team Abramoff— and former chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), as well as from attorney Henry Schuelke, who conducted an internal investigation at Greenberg Traurig.
Although Abramoff himself was depicted in a large chart shown to the jury by federal prosecutors Friday, he will not testify in the case.
Correction: Sept. 14, 2009
The article misstated the firm at which attorney Henry Schuelke conducted an internal investigation of “Team Abramoff.— It was at Greenberg Traurig.