Politics & Government

Former Justice Dept. official to admit to taking gifts in Abramoff case

WASHINGTON — A former senior Justice Department official is expected to appear in court Tuesday to face charges that he helped and accepted gifts from a key associate of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Prosecutors filed court papers Monday against Robert E. Coughlin II, the former deputy chief of staff of the department's criminal division, signaling that Coughlin has agreed to plead guilty.

In the court papers, Coughlin is accused of accepting gifts from an unnamed lobbyist between March 2001 and October 2003 while providing assistance to the lobbyist's firm and negotiating prospective employment with the firm.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, which made the allegations, wouldn't comment.

Last April, McClatchy reported that lobbyist Kevin Ring, Coughlin's longtime friend and a former lobbyist for Abramoff's Greenberg Traurig firm, was in frequent contact with the Justice Department during that period. Lobbying disclosure records 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.

When Ring was lobbying the Justice Department, Coughlin was a special assistant in the department's office of legislative affairs and later deputy director of the office of intergovernmental and public liaison.

Coughlin stepped down from his post in the criminal division last April as investigators in his division ratcheted up their investigation of Ring.

When Coughlin resigned, Justice Department officials said that he'd recused himself from the Abramoff investigation and "played no role in any aspect of the investigation during his tenure in the criminal division."

Because of the potential conflict, prosecutors in Baltimore investigated the allegations against Coughlin.

Coughlin is at least the second Justice Department official to come under scrutiny in the wide-ranging Abramoff probe, which has implicated at least 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 last year.

Ring is a former aide to Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., who's also under scrutiny in the Abramoff probe and who announced earlier this year that he was retiring.

Abramoff is serving time on separate charges and awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to three counts in the corruption probe.

Coughlin couldn't be reached for comment Monday, but he told McClatchy after stepping down that he resigned voluntarily because he was relocating to Texas. An attorney representing Ring couldn't be reached for comment.