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Abramoff-related trial handed over to jury

By: PETE YOST Associated Press Writer
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The second trial in the long-running influence peddling scandal surrounding imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to the jury Monday with the defense arguing that a former member of Abramoff’s team is being prosecuted for guilt by association. Unlike other people implicated in the probe, former lobbyist Kevin Ring is fighting the criminal charges the Justice Department brought against him rather than pleading guilty in an effort to be granted leniency by a judge. U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle is presiding over the case. During a trial that began 3 1/2 weeks ago, Ring’s lawyers maintained Ring was an excellent lobbyist who stayed completely within the bounds of the law. “It was his job to influence public officials,” one of Ring’s attorneys, Andrew Wise, told the jury. “There is no question he used what were traditional tools including entertainment, meals, tickets to games.” “When persuasion was done it was based on politics, sometimes on being a relentless pest” and in other instances “begging,” said Wise. Prosecutors said Ring’s actions rewarded government employees for official favors done and provided inducements for future acts on behalf of Abramoff clients. “Kevin Ring learned to lobby from Jack Abramoff; a lot of what he was doing was another form of bribery,” assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Leotta told the jury. “This was a long-term scheme, executed over a period of years. ... bribe after bribe.” Ring is charged with conspiracy, obstruction and with engaging in a corrupt pay-to-play scheme in which he provided a stream of things of value to public officials in return for official action. A former aide to two powerful Republican lawmakers, Rep. John Doolittle of California and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, Ring in 1999 joined more than a dozen former Capitol Hill aides whom Abramoff lured to work with him. At Ring’s trial, prosecutors have focused on the fact that he worked with colleagues who have admitted committing serious crimes. In turn, Ring’s lawyers tried to persuade the jury that the government was unfairly trying to equate Ring’s behavior with that of Abramoff. “It took the prosecution six words before they mentioned Jack Abramoff,” Wise told the jurors. This is “a case that is long on guilt by association.” One focal point of the government’s case was Ring’s role in passing along requests from Doolittle’s office that eventually resulted in a $5,000-a-month consulting job for the congressman’s wife. In closing arguments, Leotta said Julie Doolittle was paid $96,000 in all. “They put the congressman’s wife on retainer as a way of putting the congressman on retainer,” Leotta told the jury. One Abramoff e-mail regarding Doolittle’s wife introduced at the trial stated that the lobbyist wanted Mrs. Doolittle to help out but didn’t want her to be “overburdened with work.” Two unusual aspects of the trial were that when Ring’s lawyers attempted to call a top aide to Ashcroft and the aide’s wife to testify on Ring’s behalf, the witnesses claimed their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. The defense called no other witnesses. Prosecutors say David Ayers helped Ring get Justice Department money for one of his clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to build a $16.3 million jail on their reservation. Prosecutors say Ring, with Abramoff signing off, then gave Ayers highly sought-after tickets to the 2002 NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament in Washington. Laura Ayers also refused to testify. Prosecutors say Laura Ayers asked Ring for Washington Wizards basketball tickets in January 2003, saying she wanted to give them to her husband for his birthday. At the time they refused to testify, Wise said in court that he believes the Ayers could help prove Ring’s innocence. The only other defendant in the Abramoff scandal to go on trial was David Safavian, once the Bush White House’s chief procurement officer, who was found guilty of lying to investigators by two separate juries after winning a retrial on appeal.