Ex-DOJ official pleads guilty in Abramoff lobbying scandal

A high-powered lobbying campaign on behalf of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians led a former Department of Justice official to plead guilty on Tuesday.

The tribe wanted $16.3 million in federal funds to build a detention facility. DOJ officials were only willing to award $9 million and they wanted construction of the jail open to competitive bidders.

But with the help of a lobbyist from the Greenberg Traurig firm and a high-ranking Bush administration appointee, the tribe prevailed on both accounts. According to federal prosecutors, the two worked in tandem for more than a year to ensure the Choctaws got what they wanted.

"CHA-CHING!!!!" the tribe's lobbyists wrote when the campaign was successful.

"Thanks is not strong enough," the lobbyist said in an e-mail. "We need to celebrate this issue finally being over."

Robert E. Coughlin, the former DOJ official, was treated to drinks, dinners and tickets to sports events at the tribe's expense. But now he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

For several years, Abramoff was one of Washington's highest-paid lobbyists. The Republican insider commanded fees of $500 an hour, which the Choctaws and a handful of other tribes eagerly paid in exchange for access to federal officials and lawmakers.

Abramoff has since pleaded guilty to bank fraud and to defrauding his tribal clients. More than a dozen people -- including a former Congressman -- have been caught up in the scandal, which has led to lobbying and ethics reform legislation.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who led an investigation of the matter when he was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has made the issue a part of his presidential campaign. "Do I get angry from time to time, when I'm investigating Mr. Abramoff and find out they ripped off Indian tribes?" the presumptive Republican nominee said on Sunday on the ABC News program This Week.

"American people are angry too," McCain said as he cited other Washington scandals. "They want change. They want action."

For the Choctaws, action came with the help of lobbyist Kevin Ring, who refused to testify when McCain called him as a witness at a June 2005 hearing. Court documents refer to Ring as "Lobbyist A" and describe the e-mails, dinners, meetings and other contacts he head with DOJ on the jail funds.

"My senior partner has made abundantly clear that this is the highest priority," Ring said in a November 11, 2001, e-mail that described the jail issue as reaching a "crisis point."

Coughlin, who met Ring when both were Capitol Hill staffers, was ready to assist, according to federal prosecutors. He injected himself into the process for awarding jail grants and went out of his way to identify "friendly" officials -- those of Republican orientation -- who might side with the tribe.

At one point, Coughlin was able to block one apparently unfriendly DOJ official from making decision on the jail funds. "I will take care of it," he wrote in an e-mail.

For his efforts, Coughlin admitted receiving upwards of $6,180 in meals, drinks and tickets. He failed to report the gifts on financial disclosure forms filed with the government, prosecutors said.

Ring has not been charged in connection with the scandal. He left Greenberg Traurig for another lobbying firm, where he continued to represent the Choctaws and other tribes. Senate records do not show any activity for him after the year 2006.

Relevant Documents:
Robert E. Coughlin Plea Deal | Statement of Information

Lobbying Records:
Kevin Ring | Kevin A. Ring | Kevin A. Ring

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Ex-Justice official charged in Abramoff probe (4/22)
Lobbying Report: Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (6/27)
Choctaws hire three ex-Abramoff lobbyists (6/27)
Choctaws hire lobbyist accused in Abramoff fraud (6/24)
Under scrutiny, Choctaw tribe goes into hiding (6/23)
Committee report on horizon in tribal lobbying scandal (06/23)
Update on Senate hearing into lobbying scandal (6/23)
Mississippi Choctaws focus of Senate lobbying hearing (6/23)
Mississippi Choctaws at center of lobbying hearing (6/22)
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Gaming leads to new concerns about lobbyists (05/26)
Mississippi Choctaw lawyer referred Abramoff (11/22)
Choctaw Tribe's lobbying documents kept secret (10/4)
Ex-tribal lobbyists slammed in Senate hearing (9/30)
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