Politics & Government

Top Justice official admits Abramoff fueled his regal life

WASHINGTON — A former senior Justice Department official admitted Tuesday that he did favors for clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff while accepting free meals at upscale Washington restaurants and luxury-suite tickets to sports games paid for by Abramoff's former firm.

In court papers, Robert E. Coughlin II acknowledged using his position as a department official to help Abramoff's former firm, Greenberg Traurig, including campaigning on the firm's behalf to secure a $16.3 million grant for a Indian tribe to build a jail.

Coughlin, 36, also set up meetings with "friendly" Justice officials to discuss the grant and intentionally cut out a Democratic-leaning official who he assumed wouldn't be open to helping Abramoff's firm, the court records show.

Coughlin, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to a felony conflict of interest charge, made the admissions as part of an agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. Prosecutors, who plan to seek four to six months in prison, declined to comment.

Coughlin, then 29, began helping Abramoff's clients in 2001 at the request of his longtime friend, who in court papers is only referred to as "lobbyist A." Attorneys familiar with the investigation, but who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, identified "lobbyist A" as Kevin Ring. Ring is a former key associate of Abramoff and a former aide to Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., who's also under scrutiny in the Abramoff probe.

Ring is accused of routinely buying meals and drinks for various government officials such as Coughlin at Signatures, a restaurant that Abramoff once owned.

At the behest of Abramoff, known as "lobbyist B" in court records, Ring also allegedly gave officials, including those with the department, free tickets to sports events at Washington area stadiums. Prosecutors estimate that Coughlin received more than $6,000 in gifts from 2001 to 2003, including about 25 meals and tickets to 25 sporting events and concerts. He didn't report the gifts as required by the department.

Coughlin told prosecutors that he and Ring strategized routinely to help the tribe. When the tribe received only $9 million for the jail, Coughlin successfully pushed the department in 2002 to waive a competitive bidding process and to reverse the decision.

After Ring heard the news, he wrote to Coughlin, "Thanks is not strong enough," in an e-mail with the subject line that included "CHA-CHING!!!!"

Three days later, Ring paid for lunch for Coughlin and two unidentified department officials at Signatures.

At Ring's request, Coughlin also persuaded immigration officials to expedite the review of a school that Abramoff owned. Twice in 2002, Ring and Coughlin discussed the idea of Coughlin going to work for Abramoff's firm.

Lobbying disclosure records show Ring had more than a dozen contacts with the department from 2000 to 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 told prosecutors that he never had a "substantive conversation" with Abramoff.

Coughlin, who stepped down from his post in the criminal division last April as investigators in his division ratcheted up their investigation of Ring, had recused himself from the Abramoff inquiry. He left the courthouse without commenting. In court, he said he was currently unemployed and lived in Texas.

His attorney, Joshua Berman, said his client was "deeply saddened by these events and looks forward to focusing his attention on his family."

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