A judge on Thursday spared from prison time a former congressional aide involved in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and questioned why lawmakers were able to avoid prosecution while their staffers are paying the price for influence-peddling schemes.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle rejected prosecutors' recommendation that the top aide to former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Ernest Istook spend more than two years behind bars. Istook's former chief of staff John Albaugh admitted helping steer funding to Abramoff's clients after his firm helped raise campaign donations for Istook.
Instead, Huvelle sentenced Albaugh to five years' probation and four months in a halfway house in his adopted hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo., where he works for a nonprofit called Morning Star Development. She said a fine and community service weren't necessary after Albaugh, a father of three who once made six figures on Capitol Hill, told Huvelle he made $24,000 last year helping the group that provides aide in Afghanistan with fundraising and communications.
Albaugh told Huvelle it pains him deeply to think about the "corrupt" methods he used to try to help Istook's career ambitions. He said Istook told him he wanted to run for the Senate and they discussed how they would need to raise a lot of money for such a bid. Albaugh said lobbyists were an obvious source of funding and that the Abramoff team was particularly aggressive, raising tens of thousands of dollars and using the firm's luxury boxes to host fundraisers for Istook.
Albaugh said of the many funding requests that would come in from lobbyists, he would winnow down the list to those who had raised money for his boss, chair of the subcommittee on transportation funding. He said he presented the list to the congressman for insertion in the appropriations bill. He said the list didn't have to include the amounts the lobbyists raised. "He knows who his contributors are," Albaugh said.
Istook was under investigation in the scandal _ Albaugh even secretly recorded their conversations at the request of federal agents. But prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds declined to answer Huvelle's question about why charges were never filed against Istook. The judge said she was concerned that "higher ups" had walked away.
Istook left Congress in 2006 for a gubernatorial campaign that proved unsuccessful. Now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation think tank, he said Thursday in an email to The Associated Press that he had told Albaugh in writing that he would not work from the list his aide had provided and wouldn't consider requests based on lobbyists or contributors.
"Instead, as I told him, I would work from lists showing only requests received from members of Congress. Multiple times I made it clear that I would not base any legislative decisions on campaign contributions _ and I never did," Istook said in the statement. "I shared this information with the FBI when they contacted me, which was almost three years ago." He later changed the statement to say he shared the information "after" rather than "when" the FBI contacted him.
Istook added: "John Albaugh was entrusted with making recommendations and with compiling legislation from my decisions. I regret that he misplaced his priorities in exercising that trust. He mistakenly may have thought that somehow he was helping me politically, but he was not."
Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was the only lawmaker charged in the scandal although others, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; former Reps. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.; and former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., were investigated.
"There are three or four congressmen out there that will never see the light of day for actions, and we're blaming the staffers," Huvelle said. "The people that really benefited from this scheme, with one exception, aren't the people in front of me."
Edmonds argued that Albaugh helped Abramoff's clients get $14 million in taxpayer dollars in violation of the principles of a functioning democracy where funding projects should be based on merit. He told Huvelle to think of his sentencing as she would in a drug case. "Just because you don't get the kingpin doesn't mean you don't sentence the second in command," Edmonds said.
Albaugh pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to defraud the House in 2008 and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. But Edmonds asked Huvelle to rule that he breached the plea agreement by recanting his testimony against a lobbyist who worked for Abramoff and sentence him to 27 months.
Albaugh had been the leading witness in a 2009 trial against Abramoff associate Kevin Ring. Albaugh testified that he did favors for Abramoff's firm in part because Ring took him out to restaurants and gave him tickets to performances including George Strait, Tim McGraw, Disney on Ice and The Wiggles.
The jury could not agree on whether Ring was guilty and Huvelle declared a mistrial. When prosecutors tried Ring again in 2010, Albaugh said he no longer felt he was motivated by the meals and tickets but because Abramoff's firm was raising so much money for Istook's campaign fund.
Prosecutors decided not to call Albaugh to testify again after his change of heart, but instead used his emails with Ring as evidence they conspired together. Huvelle pointed out that didn't hurt their case _ Ring was convicted the second time.