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Justice Department official resigns as Abramoff probe heats up

WASHINGTON—A senior Justice Department official has resigned after coming under scrutiny in the department's expanding investigation of convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to federal law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case.

Making the situation more awkward for the embattled Justice Department, Robert E. Coughlin II was deputy chief of staff for the criminal division, which is overseeing the department's probe of Abramoff.

Spokesman Bryan Sierra said Coughlin had recused himself from the Abramoff investigation and "played no role in any aspect of the investigation during his tenure in the criminal division."

Coughlin stepped down effective April 6 as investigators in Coughlin's own division ratcheted up their investigation of lobbyist Kevin Ring, Coughlin's longtime friend and a key associate of Abramoff.

Coughlin held two senior staff positions at Justice while Ring was lobbying the department on behalf of Abramoff's clients.

When contacted at his home in Washington, Coughlin said he resigned voluntarily because he was relocating to Texas. "I was not asked to resign," he said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "It's important to me that it's made clear that I left voluntarily."

He said he couldn't comment on the Abramoff investigation or on whether he has a job lined up in Texas. And he declined to say where he was moving to in Texas. He referred all other questions to friend Michael Horowitz.

Horowitz, a criminal defense attorney and former Justice Department official and public corruption prosecutor, didn't respond to questions, including whether he's representing Coughlin. Coughlin also wouldn't say whether he had hired a lawyer.

The law enforcement officials asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case.

The disclosure of Coughlin's resignation was another blow to a Justice Department already struggling to recover from the controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Democrats and a number of Republicans have criticized Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his handling of the ousters, which critics charge were politically motivated.

Coughlin is at least the second Justice Department official to come under scrutiny in the wide-ranging Abramoff probe, which has implicated five congressmen, a deputy Cabinet secretary, a White House aide and eight others. Sue Ellen Wooldridge, a top environmental prosecutor at the Department of Justice, resigned in January.

Abramoff is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to three counts in the corruption probe and could face up to 11 years in prison.

It was unclear whether Coughlin is a target in the investigation, which would mean that he's under intense scrutiny, or whether he's a subject in the investigation, which would mean that investigators haven't determined whether he committed any wrongdoing. Justice spokesman Sierra declined to respond to any questions about the Abramoff investigation because it is ongoing.

Ring's attorney, Richard Hibey, also has declined comment on the investigation.

Ring was in frequent contact with the Justice Department, according to lobbying records that Abramoff's law firm, Greenburg Traurig, submitted to the Senate. The reports show more than a dozen contacts with the agency between 2000 and 2004, half of them for Indian tribes that Abramoff represented on casino issues. The reports don't disclose whom he talked to.

At the time of Ring's lobbying of the Justice Department, Coughlin was special assistant to the assistant attorney general in the office of legislative affairs and later deputy director of the office of intergovernmental affairs.

In November 2003, he left the department, but returned in the spring or early summer of 2005, Sierra said.

Before he began working for the Justice Department, Coughlin worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee under then-Sen. John Ashcroft from November 1999 to February 2001, according to committee records. Coughlin joined the Justice Department in March 2001 after President Bush tapped Ashcroft to become attorney general.

Sierra refused to release a copy of Coughlin's resume.

According to a Justice Department press release, Coughlin was given an award for fraud prevention by the attorney general on Sept. 12, 2006.