US courthouse still busy with Abramoff scandal

AP News
Posted: Oct 23, 2010 3:20 AM
US courthouse still busy with Abramoff scandal

Jack Abramoff, the high-living mastermind of an influence-peddling ring that became a scandal, is working at a pizza shop while the legal system grinds away at the carnage he left behind.

At the federal courthouse in Washington, one former Abramoff associate is being tried for a second time, a former White House official from the George W. Bush administration is appealing his convictions following his second trial and the criminal cases against nine other lesser figures are still pending.

Of the 11 Abramoff scandal figures whose cases are still working their way through federal courts, eight _ six former ex-lobbyists and two ex-congressional staffers _ pleaded guilty and await sentencing. A ninth, Fraser Verrusio, a former aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, faces a trial for allegedly taking a free trip to the 2003 World Series. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on whether the investigation is continuing.

Abramoff, meanwhile, reports for work daily _ at Tov Pizza in northwest Baltimore.

"The guy's way overqualified for what he's doing here," Ron Rosenbluth, owner of the kosher pizzeria, said Friday.

A prominent Republican lobbyist who once charged clients $750 a hour, Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in January 2006 and has cooperated with prosecutors in bringing other cases.

He was released from a minimum-security prison camp in western Maryland on June 8 after serving about 3 1/2 years. He spent just three days in a halfway house in Baltimore, then was placed in home confinement, in part because he got a job.

Abramoff will continue working at Tov Pizza until his supervision by the federal Bureau of Prisons ends in December, Rosenbluth said.

Rather than making pizzas or greeting customers, Abramoff has helped the restaurant keep better track of the results of its advertising and contact with customers through e-mail and Facebook. He's also pushing Rosenbluth to launch a frozen product line and working on a few other projects that haven't yet come to fruition.

"These things sound like they would be simple, but I wasn't doing them," said Rosenbluth. "It's been good."

On Friday in Washington, three federal appeals judges wrestled with whether the George W. Bush administration's former top procurement official, David Safavian, got a fair trial the second time around.

Safavian's lawyer argued his case in a fifth-floor courtroom, the day after the retrial of ex-lobbyist Kevin Ring got under way on the fourth floor.

In appealing Safavian's convictions a second time, his lawyers say he was the victim of vindictive prosecution at his retrial, in which he was convicted of obstructing justice and making false statements to investigators.

Safavian provided Abramoff with information on two pieces of government-controlled property Abramoff wanted, and Safavian accepted a lavish golfing junket to Scotland paid for in part by Abramoff.

The prosecution of Safavian rests in part on new charges that the government added after Safavian's successful appeal following conviction at his first trial in 2006.

Prosecutors "upped the ante" and the added charges can only be viewed as vindictive prosecution, complained Safavian attorney Shannen Wayne Coffin.

The U.S. District Court "didn't view it that way," observed appeals court judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan.

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The judge "was mistaken," replied Coffin, who said the government's evidence for the new charges was evidence in support of a charge in the first trial as well.

In the Ring retrial, several former Team Abramoff lobbyists will likely be called to testify in support of the prosecution, including lobbyists Neil Volz, Todd Boulanger and Tony Rudy.

The first trial of Ring ended a year ago with jurors unable to agree on his guilt after defense lawyers argued he was just doing his job by trying to influence policymakers.

Reflecting the unexpected twists and turns in white-collar cases, the Justice Department doesn't plan to call any of the public officials whom Ring is accused of corrupting.

Two of them, former Justice Department official Robert Coughlin and former congressional staffer John Albaugh, pleaded guilty but say after all this time they don't believe they took official actions because of meals and tickets paid for by the Abramoff firm.

One of Abramoff's former associates whose case is pending is Michael Scanlon, who is asking a judge to strike part of Scanlon's plea in light of a Supreme Court ruling in another white-collar crime investigation, the Enron scandal.

In June, the Supreme Court weakened the honest services fraud law designed to criminalize conduct that might be used to deprive the public of the honest services of a government official. Scanlon pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the honest services law.


Nuckols reported from Baltimore. Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.