Lobbyist's trial evidence under judges' review
WASHINGTON — Federal appeals court judges reviewing the conviction of former lobbyist Kevin Ring in the Abramoff scandal questioned on Thursday whether evidence of campaign contributions should have been allowed at his trial.
Ring, who worked under Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving meals and event tickets to public officials with an intent to corrupt them.
The trial judge, Ellen Huvelle, allowed evidence of legal campaign contributions, which prosecutors said showed how Ring gained access to public officials. But Huvelle also told jurors that they could not consider the contributions as part of the “illegal stream of benefits” Ring was charged with providing officials.
Judge David S. Tatel, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said the campaign contributions were of some value in making the case. But he also questioned whether that was outweighed by the prejudicial or confusing effect to jurors.
Justice Department lawyer John-Alex Romano said Huvelle “took great pains” to prevent that in her instructions to jurors. The judge's instructions noted that there is nothing illegal about lobbyists contributing to politicians' campaigns.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush, asked Romano, “Wasn't there some evidence the jury was confused?”
Romano said the jurors had sent a note asking the judge to distinguish between legal and illegal contributions — not campaign contributions.
Tatel responded that “the question is whether the jury could have inferred illegal conduct” from testimony about activity protected by the First Amendment — campaign contributions.
Tatel also questioned whether the government could have made its case against Ring without the campaign contributions.