A former high-ranking official in the Justice Department pleaded guilty yesterday to accepting thousands of dollars worth of meals and sports tickets from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for helping a variety of Abramoff's clients.
Robert E. Coughlin II, the former deputy chief of staff of the Justice Department's criminal division, became the latest of more than a dozen public officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members to be convicted or to plead guilty in the wide-ranging federal investigation of Abramoff's activities.
As part of his plea agreement, Coughlin, 36, agreed to cooperate with investigators, making him a potentially important witness in the ongoing scrutiny of Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.). Coughlin acknowledged performing a variety of official acts for Kevin A. Ring, a key member of Abramoff's lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig and a former legislative aide to Doolittle. Coughlin and Ring are longtime friends who worked together on Capitol Hill a decade ago.
Coughlin admitted violating the federal conflict-of-interest statute while he served in the department's offices of legislative affairs and public liaison between March 2001 and October 2003. According to court papers filed yesterday, he leaked department information, attended meetings and contacted his Justice colleagues to help clients of Abramoff and Ring.
First observation: Robert Coughlin is a little fish. The Justice Department clearly believes that Mr. Coughlin will help them nail bigger fish.
I first mentioned Mr. Coughlin a year ago. Back in April 2007, it was unclear to me what Mr. Coughlin had done wrong. Accepting meals and tickets to sporting events would not be anywhere near an ethical violation at my organization, but I'm not a public servant either (I accepted two meals today). Employees of the federal government seem to have much stricter rules under the aforementioned "federal conflict-of-interest statute". Even though I didn't understand what Mr. Coughlin had done wrong, I stated that "I expect[ed] more facts to emerge -- facts not exactly exculpatory to Mr. Coughlin?" It was clear to me that Mr. Coughlin had exercised his authority in a manner to help Kevin Ring, an employee of Jack Abramoff. Although I didn't know what Mr. Coughlin had done, bartering official action for a benefit (the tickets and meals) is obviously unethical and illegal. I'd get sacked for using my position to benefit someone over my organization ... not for accepting meals.
By October 2007, it was clear that the Justice Department was going after Mr. Coughlin on a conflict-of-interest charge. I stated my opinion at the time that there was a quid-pro-quo between Mr. Coughlin and Mr. Ring.
The big question is where do we go from here. What information does Mr. Coughlin bring to the table? I go back to April 2007 again. I've long suspected that Mr. Ring is cooperating with the Justice Department. Now we know with certainty that Mr. Coughlin is cooperating. I'll stick to my April 2007 speculation that the ultimate big fish in this corner of the Abramoff scandal is Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.). Sure, that's an easy call to make. I mean, the Washington Post puts it out there in black and white for us to see. I just want to remind everyone of a statement from Rep. Doolittle's office when we learned that Mr. Ring was likely cooperating:
"In light of the uncertainty with Mr. Ring's situation, [Rep. Doolittle's] attorney has advised him to provide no further comment on this investigation," said Richard Robinson, Doolittle's chief of staff.
Robinson directed questions to David Barger, a prominent criminal defense attorney in suburban Virginia whom Doolittle retained a year ago. Barger was not available for comment late Monday afternoon.
Uncertainty with Mr. Ring's situation. No further comment. Criminal defense attorney.
Trust me, I'm not going out on a limb here.