Justice Official Pleads Guilty in Abramoff Case
A former Justice Department official today admitted accepting more than $4,000 worth of meals and sports tickets from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for helping a variety of Abramoff's clients, including a Mississippi Indian tribe seeking federal money to build a prison, reports The Post's James Grimaldi.
Robert E. Coughlin II, the former deputy chief of staff of the Justice Department's criminal division, pleaded guilty to a one-count charge of violating the federal conflict-of-interest statute while he served in the department's offices of legislative affairs and public liaison between March 2001 and October 2003.
Citing personal reasons, Coughlin resigned on April 6, 2007. He is one of more than a dozen people -- including a congressmen, lobbyists, Capitol Hill staff members and executive branch officials -- who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the wide-ranging lobbying scandal. The federal investigation is continuing.
Coughlin, 36, admitted that he leaked inside Justice Department information, attended meetings and contacted officials as part of his efforts to help Abramoff, his firm, Greenberg Traurig and in particularly one of Abramoff's key lobbying colleagues, Kevin A. Ring. Coughlin and Ring are longtime friends who worked together on Capitol Hill a decade ago, court records filed today said.
Coughlin entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle in Washington. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His attorneys said they planned to ask for a sentence of less than six months, while prosecutors under the plea agreement could seek a term of up to 10 months and a $10,000 fine. The agreement indicated that Coughlin has promised to cooperate with the federal investigation. Coughlin said in court he has already met with federal investigators. No sentencing date was set but a status hearing was scheduled for September.
Ring, a former aide to Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), remains under investigation by the task force probing the activities of Abramoff, who is in federal prison. Doolittle, who along with his wife is also under scrutiny, has announced he will not seek re-election.
Documents filed in court refer to Coughlin's contacts with Lobbyist A and Lobbyist B and their firm. Although the lobbyists and the firm are not specified in the documents, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said the circumstances make clear that Ring is Lobbyist A and Abramoff is Lobbyist B, and that the firm is Greenberg Traurig.
According to the documents Coughlin identified officials in the Justice Department that the Abramoff lobbying team could consider "friendlies," employees who would assist Abramoff in achieving results for their clients. Coughlin aided in providing information for clients in disputes, and in one case forwarded an e-mail from Ring to Immigration and Naturalizations Service officials seeking to help a student get government approval to attend Abramoff's yeshiva, Eshkol Academy. The INS agreed to expedite the matter.
In particular, Coughlin helped Ring and Team Abramoff in his efforts to secure $16.3 million from a division of the Justice Department to build a jail for the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff's clients, and in the process waive a competitive-bidding requirement, the court documents show.
Excerpts from e-mail exchanges between Ring and Coughlin included in the court papers show that Ring often sprinkled meal invitations with requests for aid, including asking Coughlin to attend an April 2001 meeting "so some of the clowns there know that I have friends, if you get my drift." When the grant was finally approved, Ring sent Coughlin an e-mail on June 25, 2002, with the subject line: "CHA-CHING!!!!"
Ring wrote to Coughlin, "We need to celebrate this issue finally being over." Three days later, Ring bought Coughlin lunch at Abramoff's downtown restaurant, Signatures.
Ring declined comment.
Coughlin told prosecutors he did not recall having a substantive conversation with Abramoff. Coughlin, who has been sharing meals and drinks with Ring for 16 years, said that he did not know that Ring was billing their social gatherings as lobbying expenses. "Coughlin also was unaware that Lobbyist A [Ring] held Coughlin out to be one of his most valuable lobbying contacts at DOJ," said the document, known as a statement of offense.
In exchange for assistance to Abramoff and Ring on a variety of matters, Coughlin accepted meals and drinks on 25 occasions at pricey restaurants, primarily Signatures, the document said. He also accepted 20 tickets to seven sporting events at the Verizon Center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and FedEx Field, where Abramoff had leased luxury suites; five tickets to three concerts; and one round of golf. Prosecutors estimated the value of the gifts to be about $6,180, but Coughlin's estimate is about $4,800.
"Coughlin failed to report these things of value on his financial disclosure forms for the 2001, 2002 and 2003 years," the document said.
Twice, in March and April of 2002, Ring also discussed with Coughlin a possible job at Greenberg Traurig, the court filing said. One of the discussions occurred at Signatures.
Coughlin and Ring have known each other since 1992, the document said, and worked together as staffers in the 1990s to then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who became attorney general in 2001.
When Coughlin joined the criminal division in 2005, he was recused from the Abramoff inquiry because of his friendship with Ring. Investigators came across Coughlin's name while trying to ascertain whether Ring improperly sought or received favors for lobbying clients from people in government, sources told The Washington Post last year.
In 2006, Coughlin won a prestigious award presented by then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for his efforts to prevent fraud and white collar crime. At the awards ceremony at Constitution Hall, Gonzales said Coughlin and others deserved recognition for "exceptional dedication and effort to prevent, investigation, and prosecute fraud and white collar crimes."
The case against Coughlin was handled by a special prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore because Coughlin had worked in the criminal division at Justice Department main headquarters.
Abramoff, who has provided extensive assistance to prosecutors, is in federal prison in Maryland serving time for a Florida fraud conviction and is awaiting sentencing on separate charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.
Coughlin is the second Justice Department official whose name has surfaced in the wide-ranging Abramoff investigation. Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, abruptly resigned in January 2007 when her boyfriend, whom she later married, was notified that he was a criminal target. J. Steven Griles, former deputy secretary of the Interior Department, later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Abramoff.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Dr. Gene Nelson | April 22, 2008 4:13 PM
Posted by: l.young6635 | April 22, 2008 4:24 PM
Posted by: Singing Senator | April 22, 2008 5:13 PM
Posted by: jwh | April 22, 2008 5:33 PM
Posted by: Singing Senator | April 22, 2008 5:46 PM
Posted by: 274627 | April 22, 2008 6:33 PM
Posted by: Dr. Gene Nelson | April 22, 2008 6:36 PM
Posted by: Mikey | April 22, 2008 6:38 PM
Posted by: FARFALLE | April 22, 2008 6:46 PM
Posted by: Jackson | April 22, 2008 7:00 PM
Posted by: Bert | April 22, 2008 8:51 PM
Posted by: PV | April 23, 2008 7:30 AM
Posted by: Kenneth B. Smith, P.E. | April 23, 2008 2:50 PM
Posted by: Wayne Smyer | May 1, 2008 9:59 AM
Posted by: pinkydink53 | August 21, 2008 5:10 AM