Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul

Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.

His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.

Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”

Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work.

He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.

“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.”

FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.

Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background.

It's not likely to be an easy sell.

Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price.

“I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward,” Grassley said. “What I’m not willing to do is an across-the-board cut in mandatory minimums. I agree that some should be cut. But I also think that some should be raised.”

Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.

His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”

FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes.

“It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”

He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences.

In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.

It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented.

“My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”

And Ring will be right in the middle of it.

“I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”