A federal prosecutor opened arguments Thursday in the trial of a former associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff by using the defendant's own e-mails about behind-the-scenes dealmaking in an attempt to show he corrupted government officials.
Lobbyist Kevin Ring wrote that "the ethics thing is a real turn off" and that his team preferred working with "amoral pond scum" in one e-mail, and Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds told jurors that the comments were evidence of Ring's win-at-any-cost mentality. He said Ring showered officials with event tickets, fancy dinners and never-ending drinks to get policies and taxpayer expenditures in favor of his clients instead of for the public good.
Ring's defense lawyer countered that the Justice Department is trying to criminalize "obvious jokes," and that they offer no evidence his client broke the law.
The Justice Department is trying for a second time to convict Ring, a 40-year-old former associate of corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The first trial ended a year ago with jurors unable to agree on Ring's guilt after defense lawyers argued he was just doing his job by trying to influence policymakers.
Ring is the only member of Team Abramoff charged with a crime to fight in court rather than enter a guilty plea and avoid a trial. Former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and a dozen other staffers from Congress and the Bush administration have been convicted in the conspiracy.
Ring attorney Andrew Wise told jurors the case will confirm some of their worst impressions of how Washington works, but his client was just one of many lobbyists using an expense account to build relationships in a legal, if distasteful, system.
"In this country, money controls politics. Lobbyists have a ridiculous impact on public policy," Wise said. "The way our government works and the role of lobbyists on our government are not on trial here."
The second trial is being held in a newer courtroom in federal court in Washington with individual video screens in the jury box that Edmonds used during open arguments to display Ring's written words in large type.
In an e-mail, Ring wrote that former Attorney General John Ashcroft's top aide should "pay us back" for owner's box seats at the 2002 NCAA March Madness tournament.
After Abramoff's lobbyists got what they wanted from Ashcroft's Justice Department _ a $16.3 million grant for their client the Choctaw Indian tribe _ Ring e-mailed his associates to say they should respond by thanking "friends on the Hill and in the administration."
"In fact, thank them over and over this week _ preferably for long periods of time and at expensive establishments," Ring wrote in another e-mail Edmonds showed jurors. "Thank them until it hurts _ and until we have a June bill that reflects the fact our client is about to get a $16.3 million check from the Department of Justice!!!"
Wise responded that Ring is not on trial for "sending foolish e-mails" and urged jurors to pay attention to the entire context and the relationship between the senders and recipients. He said they show a lot of bragging and bravado and "coarse and off-the-cuff language that is frequently used on Blackberries among friends."
"You're going to see some e-mails that are obvious jokes," Wise told jurors.
The prosecutors' challenge could be even more difficult in this trial because a leading congressional witness has recanted testimony from the first trial that he was corrupted by meals and tickets. And the Supreme Court issued a ruling that weakened the "honest services" law that Ring has been indicted on to require prosecutors to prove a "quid pro quo" exchange of gifts for official actions.
Edmonds argued Ring's e-mails showed he used the gifts to put officials "on retainer" so they would repay him later with favors. "There is no lobbyist exception for bribery and corruption," Edmonds said.