Lobbying can be sordid, but it's not a crime

The U.S. government says Kevin Ring, onetime colleague of jailed influence peddler Jack Abramoff, was a crooked lobbyist who should go to jail for wooing lawmakers and their staff. But absent any evidence of a specific illegal act of corruption, prosecutors have been forced to try Ring for simply being a lobbyist.

Ring, no doubt, played a crooked game, and he was paid well for playing it ruthlessly. He showered lawmakers and their staffs with concert and basketball tickets and other gifts, then got what he wanted from those same public officials. The government argues this makes Ring a “corruptor.” The government's presumption is that Congress was not already corrupt, or at least not waiting to have its palm greased, before Ring came calling.

Tellingly, the prosecution, rather than sticking to hard facts and a narrow argument, is building a broad narrative that wanders away from Ring's actions to those of his convicted colleagues. Without a smoking gun, the government is painting a picture of a sordid line of work.

A federal prosecutor said of Ring this month, “He was a lobbyist in name but a corruptor in reality. … Ring is the sugar daddy, giving out the goodies to public officials over and over again.”

The prosecution needs to employ such nebulous claims because they apparently cannot prove that Ring ever offered an actual quid pro quo. They are not alleging, for instance, that Ring ever gave Abramoff's MCI Center luxury box to an official on the condition that the staffer insert an earmark for a client.

One prosecution witness, convicted former Senate staffer Ann Copland, was brought to the stand to explain how she reacted to the generosity of one of Ring's convicted colleagues: “I did not feel like I could tell Todd [Boulanger] 'no' … because he treated me very well, which included, in large part, the tickets.”

As evidence Ring was a “corruptor,” the government pointed out that he helped a congressman's wife raise funds for the “Congressional Club,” a social and charitable club of congressmen's wives. Judge Ellen Huvelle questioned the relevance of this “evidence”: “This is just making someone happy,” she said.

And that is what Ring is on trial for: Making staffers and congressmen like him or feel obligated to help him. Is Nancy Pelosi next on the docket for buying off farm-state lawmakers on climate change? George W. Bush in 2003 imposed steel tariffs in order to win Rust Belt votes on later free-trade measures — is he a “corruptor” and a “sugar daddy?”

Public officials, however, seem to get a free pass. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., allegedly told his chief of staff that he “felt like a subsidiary” of Abramoff's lobbying firm, he was doing so much for their clients.

This is shameful. This is corrupt. But Ring and Abramoff were registered lobbyists who openly and publicly were representing the interests of their clients.

Doolittle, on the other hand, represented the people of Northern California, and had sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Yet Doolittle has not been charged.

Meanwhile Ring has been charged with a conspiracy to commit “honest services fraud.” Doolittle is the unindicted co-conspirator on one of these charges. This is troubling on two levels: “honest services fraud,” is a vague law that prosecutors appear to be redefining as something like “ripping someone off.” But how is Ring part of a “conspiracy” when no underlying crime has been alleged?

Ring is no hero, of course. As a former aide to conservative Sen. John Ashcroft, Ring was supposed to be something of a conservative, but Ring lobbied for eight-figure earmarks and increasing government. Also, setting aside any ideology, his work resembles prostitution.

But is he a criminal? Did Ring — by playing to the weakness and avarice of the men and women charged with the public trust — break a law? Nothing the prosecution has presented so far makes that case. So far, it looks like Ring played by the crooked rules of a crooked game. Ring faces a second trial on unrelated obstruction of justice charges, but his current trial is pinned to the vague “conspiracy” charges.

Former Rep. Doolittle, not charged with anything, is among a handful of players in Ring's alleged conspiracy, but all of official Washington is the true unindicted co-conspirator.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.

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