Federal appeals court judges reviewing the conviction of former lobbyist Kevin Ring in the Abramoff scandal questioned Thursday whether evidence of campaign contributions should have been allowed at his trial.
Ring, who worked under Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving meals and event tickets to public officials with an intent to corrupt them. The trial judge, Ellen Huvelle, allowed evidence of legal campaign contributions, which prosecutors said showed how Ring gained access to public officials. But Huvelle also told jurors they could not consider the contributions as part of the "illegal stream of benefits" Ring was charged with providing officials.
Judge David S. Tatel, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said the campaign contributions were of some value in making the case. But he also questioned whether that was outweighed by the prejudicial or confusing effect to jurors.
Justice Department lawyer John-Alex Romano said that Huvelle "took great pains" to prevent that in her instructions to jurors. Huvelle's instructions noted that there is nothing illegal about lobbyists contributing to politicians' campaigns.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush, asked Romano, "Wasn't there some evidence the jury was confused?"
Romano said that the jurors had sent a note asking the judge to distinguish between legal and illegal contributions — not campaign contributions.
Tatel responded that "the question is whether the jury could have inferred illegal conduct" from testimony about activity protected by the First Amendment — campaign contributions.
Tatel also questioned whether the government could have made its case against Ring without the campaign contributions. He cited the testimony of one witness, who called campaign contributions the "ante" at a poker game — getting the donor a seat at the table.
Ring's court-appointed lawyer, Timothy P. O'Toole, said that campaign contributions made to influence a public official are legal and that it wasn't permissible for the government to use such contributions at Ring's trial.
Ring, now 42, got one of the stiffest terms among the 21 defendants in the investigation. Ring was the only lobbyist defendant in the scandal to go to trial rather than reach an agreement with the government to plead guilty and cooperate. All the other lobbyists and most of the public officials charged cooperated with prosecutors and received plea deals, most of which did not include prison terms. Abramoff, the ringleader, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years.
Ring's first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial two years ago of five felony counts including conspiracy, payment of a gratuity and honest services wire fraud. He's been free pending the outcome of his appeal.
He was convicted of helping arrange a $5,000-a-month job for the wife of his former boss, then-Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., for which she did little work; and of corrupting two public officials with his gifts. Those officials included an aide to John Ashcroft, attorney general under President George W. Bush, and the then-chief of staff to ex-Rep. Earnest Istook, R-Okla. Ring took them out to expensive restaurants and gave them tickets to sporting events and concerts.
Those gifts themselves were not illegal when Ring gave them — jurors convicted him because they determined he gave them with an illegal intent to corrupt the public officials. In response to the Abramoff scandal, Congress passed a law in 2007 prohibiting lobbyists from giving such gifts.
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