Judge says prosecutors cannot retaliate for trial

By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal judge on Tuesday dramatically cut the Justice Department's recommended sentencing range for a lobbyist convicted of bribing public officials in the Abramoff scandal and said prosecutors cannot retaliate against him for fighting his charges at trial.

The prosecutors had recommended ex-lobbyist Kevin Ring get a 17- to 22-year prison sentence for treating federal officials to meals and event tickets in exchange for favors. That would have exceeded the time served by all 20 other defendants in the conspiracy combined, including ringleader Jack Abramoff who was sentenced to four years.

The difference is that Ring, a 40-year-old from Kensington, Md., who worked for Abramoff, made the rare decision among defendants in the scandal to go to trial instead of reaching a plea deal. He tried to argue his wining and dining of government officials was just standard lobbyist work to build relationships with government figures. An initial jury could not agree whether he was guilty or not. He was convicted by a second jury trial in November.

Ring's attorneys argue prosecutors' sentencing recommendations were retaliation for exercising his constitutional right to trial. U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle wrote in an opinion that "it is easy to see why such an inference might be justified."

"The notion that an ostensibly objective system of sentencing guidelines can produce such wildly varying results for essentially the same offense conduct is deeply troubling," Huvelle wrote. She ruled that Ring's guideline range should be 3-5 years, but she is free to punish him outside that range at sentencing scheduled for Oct. 26.

Federal guidelines, created in the 1980s to alleviate widespread disparities in sentencing, calculate a recommendation for punishment by trying to calculate a defendant's criminal history and the seriousness of the crime, among other factors. Although the Supreme Court has ruled the guidelines are not binding, judges still are required to calculate them as an advisory in determining felony sentences.

Only in Ring's case prosecutors are arguing he should get an enhanced sentence under the guidelines because of the grants and appropriations he and his co-conspirators were able to get for his clients at the Abramoff firm in exchange for his corrupt relationships with public officials. They put that value at more than $14 million, including $7.3 million in increased funding for a jail for an Indian tribe client.

Prosecutors had argued at a hearing last month on the issue that they were not retaliating against Ring, but instead were free to be lenient toward defendants who agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with their investigation. Huvelle wrote their argument was "unpersuasive."

She said the prosecutors' position could discourage defendants from exercising their right to trial. She wrote that while there might be disparities in the ultimate sentence that cooperating defendants get, "the government cannot retaliate against defendant for exercising his rights."

Published: Thu, Sep 22, 2011