Former Justice Official Accused of Exchanging Favors With Abramoff

By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; A08

A federal prosecutor in Maryland has accused a Justice Department official who became the former deputy chief of staff of the criminal division of helping Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for a “stream of things of value,” according to criminal papers filed yesterday.

Robert E. Coughlin II, who two years ago received a prestigious attorney general’s award, provided “assistance to a lobbyist and the lobbyist’s law/lobbying firm on particular matters before DOJ while” accepting gifts and favors and discussing a possible job offer, the federal court filing said.

The documents do not name the lobbyist or the firm, but The Washington Post reported last year that Coughlin resigned on April 6, 2007, and was under investigation by a federal task force looking into Abramoff’s activities. At the time of Coughlin’s allegedly improper activities, Abramoff worked for the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig.

Several sources familiar with the matter said that Coughlin was lobbied by Abramoff colleague Kevin A. Ring, whose activities remain under investigation. One source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said Ring lobbied Coughlin to get federal money from the Bureau of Prisons, a division of the Justice Department, to build a jail for the Choctaw tribe, one of Abramoff’s clients.

Both Coughlin and Ring worked as staffers in the 1990s to then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who became attorney general in 2001. During the period depicted in the court documents, Coughlin worked in the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs.

When Coughlin joined the criminal division in 2005, he was recused from the Abramoff inquiry because of a longtime personal friendship with Ring. Investigators came across Coughlin’s name while trying to ascertain whether Ring improperly sought or received favors for lobbying clients from people in government, sources told The Post last year.

The gifts Coughlin received are not described, but Abramoff was found guilty in 2006 of giving public officials sports and entertainment tickets, meals at his downtown restaurant and other gratuities to get favors. Ring took Coughlin to sporting events with tickets provided by his lobbying firm, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

Ring declined comment yesterday.

Abramoff, who has provided extensive assistance to prosecutors, is in federal prison in Maryland serving time for a Florida fraud conviction and is awaiting sentencing on separate charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.

Coughlin was accused of a felony count of violating the federal conflict-of-interest statute. The offense, which allegedly occurred between March 2001 and October 2003, was outlined in a filing known as a criminal information, which prosecutors often use rather than an indictment when the defendant is cooperating with an ongoing investigation.

A plea hearing for Coughlin was scheduled for today. His attorney did not respond yesterday to a phone call and an e-mail requesting comment.

Coughlin is the second Justice Department official whose name has surfaced in the wide-ranging Abramoff investigation. Last year, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, abruptly resigned when her boyfriend, whom she later married, was notified that he was a criminal target. J. Steven Griles, former deputy secretary of the Interior Department, later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Abramoff.

The task force has tracked millions of dollars in meals, trips, tickets, gifts and campaign contributions that the Abramoff lobbying team lavished on lawmakers and staffers. The investigation has resulted in convictions and guilty pleas from lobbyists, staffers, two administration officials and a congressman.

Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.