Nation & World

Indictment links California congressman to Abramoff

WASHINGTON — A former top aide to Republican Rep. John Doolittle pleaded not guilty Monday to public corruption and obstruction of justice charges in an indictment that links the northern California congressman and his wife, Julie, to convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Doolittle and his employees were showered with free lunches and tickets to concerts and sporting events, according to the indictment of his former aide, Kevin Ring. In exchange, Doolittle provided legislative favors to Abramoff's clients, including work on a $16 million appropriation and a bill to provide statehood to Puerto Rico, the indictment said.

In addition, Abramoff provided Doolittle's wife with a job in which she received $96,000 working for a non-profit group, according to the indictment. Court documents said Abramoff sent an e-mail to a consultant of the company, saying: "I want her to help, but not be overburdened with work." Later, Abramoff canceled a charity event that Doolittle's wife was working on, but she continued to receive $5,000 for month purportedly for "marketing ideas" for Abramoff's restaurant, the indictment said.

David Barger, Doolittle's attorney, said Rep. Doolittle and his wife are innocent. Prosecutors have not charged them with any wrongdoing.

"It is clear that portions of the indictment of Kevin Ring are written with gratuitous references to the congressman and his wife to titillate the public, with the foreseeable and therefore intended consequence of attempting to embarrass and pressure the Congressman."

Barger said the indictment does not allege "any sort of illegal agreement between Congressman Doolittle and Kevin Ring or Jack Abramoff."

Ring's indictment demonstrates that federal prosecutors have not completed their wide-ranging investigation into Abramoff's ties to Washington's political elite. Last week Abramoff was sentenced to four years in prison for conspiracy and other felony charges.

When Abramoff pleaded guilty in 2006, as many as half a dozen lawmakers, including former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, were said to be under scrutiny for their dealings with his former lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.

While prosecutors have convicted 12 people, including five former congressional staffers, former Interior Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, and former Justice Department lawyer Robert Coughlin, former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is the only lawmaker in the group. Last month, Ney was released early from prison.

Ring's legal troubles raise the stakes for Doolittle, who said in May 2007 that he had turned down an offer by prosecutors to plead guilty because he had not done anything wrong. Earlier this year, Doolittle announced he would be stepping down at the end of his term.

The 46-page indictment against Ring includes previously undisclosed e-mails that give a blow-by-blow account of the dealings by lawmakers and their staffers with Abramoff.

Ring, a former legislative director for Doolittle who later went to work for Abramoff, is also accused of conspiring with Ney and employees of former Republican Rep. Ernie Istook of Oklahoma.

Ring, 37, is also said to have doled out meals and sports and concert tickets to a former aide of Istook's in exchange for favors. In a deal with prosecutors, the aide, John Albaugh, pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy to defraud the House. Istook, who is now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, did not return calls. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing by prosecutors.

In addition, Ring gave former senior Justice Department official Robert Coughlin thousands of dollars in free meals and tickets, according to the indictment. Coughlin, a long-time friend of Ring who pleaded guilty earlier this year, said he used his influence inside the department to help Ring secure an additional $7 million in grants to build a jail for the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians.

Ring's attorney, Richard A. Hibey, said his client had cooperated with federal prosecutors and agents in the case since January 2006, but stopped working with prosecutors when they pressured him to plead guilty and implicate others "as the price of leniency."

"While Mr. Ring had been cooperating with officials for over two years, he simply could not plead guilty to crimes he did not commit," Hibey said in a prepared statement.

Doolittle, who was identified as "Representative 5" in the indictment, dined with Abramoff in some of Washington's finest restaurants, met with him in his office and asked the super-lobbyist to provide his wife with a job and his campaign with political contributions, which Abramoff did, the indictment said.

In exchange for legislative favors, Abramoff and Ring provided Doolittle with four suite tickets to a Dixie Chicks concert at the MCI Center, four suite tickets to a Faith Hill concert at the same arena and an entire suite for an event at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the indictment said. Doolittle's staffers received free tickets to watch Bruce Springsteen and the Washington Capitals hockey team, according to the indictment.

The dealings between Abramoff and Doolittle were so extensive that, at one point, Doolittle's chief of staff sent an e-mail to Ring saying the congressman "felt like a subsidiary" of the lobbying firm. FBI agents raided Doolittle's home in Virginia last year.

Ring represented some of Abramoff's most prominent clients involved in the influence-peddling scandal.

Ring was Abramoff's client manager for the firm's lobbying account with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The firm was hired to lobby against congressional efforts to change the territory's labor and immigration policies, which critics charged were turning the island of Saipan into a sweatshop for Asian-owned garment factories.

Doolittle was a major congressional supporter of the commonwealth and had taken steps to help Abramoff secure the lobbying contract beginning in 1999. Ring met regularly with Doolittle and his staff to lobby for the commonwealth, including efforts to win congressional funding or to plan strategy to defeat the legislation. During this period, Abramoff personally contributed $14,000 to Doolittle and his political action committee, with the last check written as the lobbying contract ended on Dec. 31, 2001.

The indictment accuses Istook, identified as Representative 4, of offering to slip in requests from Abramoff's firm into a transportation bill, and suggested the firm tell him its "entire Christmas list" of pet projects after Istook used one of Abramoff's FedEx Field suites for a fundraising event. Albaugh ensured that a total of $4 million in projects benefiting Ring's clients was included in a 2003 subcommittee draft of the transportation appropriations bill, according to the indictment.

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