WASHINGTON (AP) — A former lobbyist who was a rising star under Jack Abramoff's tutelage was sentenced Wednesday to nearly two years in prison for giving public officials meals and event tickets.
Kevin Ring argued up until his emotional sentencing hearing that he was operating in a corrupt Washington environment controlled by people with money and that he did not break the law.
"I found a ridiculous system full of gray areas and I manipulated it," a sobbing Ring told the judge in asking her not to lock him up. It was the first time he spoke about the charges in court after three years of prosecution, including two trials in which he decided not to testify.
U.S. District Ellen Segal Huvelle said Ring's conduct was not nearly as egregious as ringleader Abramoff or some of the others involved in a scandal that resulted in stricter lobbying rules in Washington. But the judge gave Ring a sentence of 20 months, one of the stiffest terms among the 21 defendants in the investigation. Most others involved cooperated with prosecutors and got plea deals that avoided prison.
Huvelle said she had to order prison "to respect the jury's verdict and promote respect for the law." Ring plans to appeal his conviction, and the judge said he could remain free pending the outcome.
Ring, a 41-year-old father of two from Kensington, Md., was convicted after two trials of five felony counts including conspiracy, payment of a gratuity and honest services wire fraud. The first jury couldn't agree on his guilt so he had a second trial that led to his conviction in November 2010.
Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds asked the judge for four years imprisonment, saying a sentence without jail would invite future offenders. He said Ring's showering of gifts on public officials "is not business as usual in Washington — that is a crime."
The Justice Department initially suggested a 17-year to 22-year sentencing guidelines range for Ring. Huvelle rejected that and suggested it appeared to justify Ring's suggestion that he was being retaliated against for exercising his constitutional right to trial.
Ring claimed in a letter to the judge that prosecutors charged him in a 10-count indictment after he refused to accuse his former boss, ex-Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., of being corrupted by his gifts. "Saying these things would have been a flat-out lie," Ring said.
Prosecutors deny he was pressured to lie and say he was offered a plea deal to admit his guilt without being required to testify against Doolittle or anyone else.
"Unfortunately for Ring, 12 jurors decided beyond a reasonable doubt that Ring did have the intent to corrupt public officials, including Congressman Doolittle," the prosecutors wrote.
They said Ring's choice to submit a letter of support from Doolittle in which Doolittle said he was never corruptly influenced by Ring "is particularly egregious" because the former lawmaker was the recipient of his bribes and could have testified during the trial and been cross-examined.
Ring was convicted of helping arrange a $5,000 per month job for Doolittle's wife for which she did little work and of corrupting two public officials with his gifts. Those officials included an aide to John Ashcroft, attorney general under President George W. Bush, and the then-chief of staff to ex-Rep. Earnest Istook, R-Okla. Ring took them out to expensive restaurants and gave them tickets to sporting events and concerts featuring George Strait, Tim McGraw, Disney on Ice and The Wiggles.
Those gifts themselves were not illegal when Ring gave them — jurors convicted him because they determined he gave them with an illegal intent to corrupt the public officials. In response to the Abramoff scandal, Congress passed a law in 2007 prohibiting lobbyists from giving such gifts.
Edmonds said Ring's crimes diverted millions in public money to his clients and shook the confidence of the American people in their government. He federal officials should serve the public, "not the lobbyists who give $70 steaks and trays of sushi."
Huvelle responded that there are bigger forces shaking trust in government. "What do you say about campaign contributions?" she asked to applause from Ring's supporters who packed the courtroom.
Huvelle said she did not consider Ring's conduct as nearly bad as that of Abramoff and his business partner, Michael Scanlon, who bilked their American Indian tribal clients out of $20 million in fees, or former Rep. Bob Ney, who accepted golf and gambling trips, tickets to sporting events, free meals and campaign donations.
She also noted that unlike those three, Ring did not benefit financially from his crimes but instead helped enrich his clients. She said the case has left Ring in financial ruin with more than $2 million in legal fees and that he went from making $600,000 at the height of his lobbying career in 2003 to now making $5,000 a month working for two nonprofits.
But Abramoff, Scanlon and Ney all reached plea agreements with prosecutors that helped cut their sentences while Ring fought at trial. His sentence ranks with theirs — Abramoff got 48 months, Ney 30 months and Scanlon also was sentenced to 20 months.