Former Gregg Staffer May Be Linked to Abramoff Probe
By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
A former top staff member to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is President Obama's choice to be commerce secretary, has come under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors investigating the Jack Abramoff gifts-for-favors scandal, according to public records and sources.
Kevin Koonce, 37, who served as Gregg's legislative director and counsel for two years until 2004, is referenced, though not by name, in a plea deal outlined in court papers filed last week, according to people familiar with the circumstances of the events described in the documents.
In the filing, Koonce is "Staffer F," said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is still under investigation, and is described as allegedly accepting more than $10,000 in tickets, meals and drinks in exchange for official actions by the Senate office that were favorable to Abramoff's lobbying clients.
After an Abramoff lobbyist gave the staffer tickets to a game between the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, the staffer, according to the court documents, e-mailed back: "thanks for thinking of me for the sox. Let me know if I can return the favor..."
Koonce, who works for the lobbying firm of Sorini, Samet & Associates, did not return messages left on voice mail and e-mail today. A spokeswoman for the firm, Desiree Tucker-Sorini, said, "He's been put on temporary administrative leave to focus on personal issues."
Gregg is not named in the documents but congressional records show that Koonce worked for the New Hampshire Republican between 2002 and 2004, the period described in the court papers. The documents do not indicate or suggest that the senator had any knowledge of his staffer's alleged illegal activities. The records, however, do allege that the Senate office was used to assist clients of Abramoff, the former Republican powerhouse lobbyist who is serving time in federal prison on corruption charges.
[Update: Gregg says in a statement that he has been contacted about the investigation and "prior to this, I was not aware of any improper acts by the former staffer in question. He left my office more than four years ago due to issues completely unrelated to those brought to light by this investigation."
Gregg said he was informed in writing that neither he nor his office is the subject or target of an investigation. "My office is fully committed to doing everything possible to aid investigators and will continue to be thoroughly transparent in providing them with any and all information necessary to see this issue through."]
The alleged activities of Staffer F are outlined in a document accompanying the plea agreement of Todd A. Boulanger, 37, who pleaded guilty to honest services violations last week. Boulanger, who worked with Abramoff as a lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig and later joined Cassidy & Associates, could have faced up to 5 years in prison. But under a plea deal, prosecutors said they would recommend a term of 18 to 24 months, with reduced time if he continues to cooperate.
Page 25 of the plea agreement references gifts "Staffer F" allegedly received from Boulanger:
Gregg, who has been in the Senate for 16 years, emerged as a leading candidate for commerce secretary in recent days and was formally nominated yesterday. Under ordinary Justice Department policies, it is unlikely that prosecutors would have alerted the White House about a former staffer's possible involvement prior to Gregg's nomination this week, legal experts said. Boulanger signed the document, called a factual basis, on Jan. 16, but it was not filed until Boulanger pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court last week.
Several of Obama's cabinet nominees have run into vetting problems, most recently former Sen. Tom Daschle, who withdrew Tuesday as a candidate for secretary of health and human services. Early last month, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico withdrew as Obama's secretary of commerce nominee because of concern over an ongoing corruption investigation into Richardson's office.
Koonce touts his connection to Gregg on the Web site of his current employer, the lobbying firm of Sorini, Samet & Associates, saying "he advised the Senator on legislative and procedural matters including but not limited to policy goals and parliamentary procedure. He developed legislative strategies and coordinated legislative staff and managed banking, tax, and trade issues for Senator Gregg."
Boulanger said he met Staffer F on July 16, 2002, and other court records indicate that was the time of a party thrown for an employee of former Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) at Abramoff's former restaurant, Signatures. Koonce lists Boulanger as a "friend" on his Facebook page. After Koonce left Greg's office, he went to work for Cassidy & Associates with Boulanger.
[UPDATE 11:34 a.m., 2/5/09: While Federal Election Commission documents state that Koonce was a lobbyist and consultant for Cassidy & Associates in 2005 when he donated to political campaigns, a spokesman for Cassidy said today that the firm has no record that Koonce ever worked for Cassidy.]
Gregg served as member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Boulanger said he tried to take advantage of the senator's position on the committee a few months after he met Staffer F, records show. Boulanger allegedly e-mailed the staffer in September 2002 to say it was good to see him recently and asking for his help preserving a $3.5 million earmark for one of Boulanger's lobbying clients that had been added to a House defense spending bill.
In January 2003, Boulanger enlisted Staffer F's help to fight an amendment relating to gambling by Native Americans. At the time, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had proposed an amendment that would have permitted Alaska native corporations to open gambling casinos anywhere in the United States. The staffer responded by saying that he would tell the senator that his office had the proposed amendment "flagged."
On Valentine's Day, 2003, Staffer F e-mailed Boulanger asking if he could "score some hockey tickets." Boulanger forwarded the request to an Abramoff assistant saying it was a "priority" and seeking "Ice seats if possible."
After Boulanger got the front-row seats, he let Staffer F know in an e-mail, writing, "This is without a doubt the most in demand game of the season.... You, my friend, are in debt to me for a while!"
Several days later, Staffer F sent his thanks, adding, "You the man. I got something for you too...."
In April, Boulanger got the staffer tickets to a Camden Yard baseball game between Baltimore and Boston. Koonce is a Red Sox fan who has a photo of Boston's Fenway Park as one of his Facebook profile pages. Staffer F e-mailed his thanks to Boulanger and offered his help in return.
In June, Staffer F asked for tickets to another game, and Boulanger promised him four seats in Abramoff's box suite. The staffer replied, "but could you make sure there's beer this time...? I mean, the red sox, crab cakes, and fillet mignon's were nice but haha."
In October, Boulanger e-mailed Abramoff that a potential client wanted to retain Team Abramoff because the client needed favorable action from Staffer F's boss. Boulanger wrote, "easy money," adding that Staffer F "practically lives in our various suites. We are shady."
In December 2003, Staffer F sent an e-mail to another Team Abramoff lobbyist, James Hirni, who last month also pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is cooperating with federal investigators in the lobbying scandal. The staffer wrote to let Hirni know he was going to be at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures, the next day "if you're around."
The staffer said to let Boulanger know, too, so Hirni forwarded the e-mail to Boulanger, who read the e-mail as a request for the lobbyists to pick up the tab. Boulanger responded to Hirni, saying that Staffer F just should have written, "buy me some drinks."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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