CBS News Justice Department Producer Stephanie Lambidakis wrote this story for CBSNews.com.
The Justice Department has racked up another conviction in the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal. If you've lost track of all the lawmakers, staffers and administration officials who've been prosecuted or jailed, there are now 13. And it's the 13th person who's likely to be remembered most inside the Justice Department. Until he suddenly quit last year, Robert E. Coughlin III was a senior Justice Department official, a political appointee who had risen fast, from the congressional and public liaison offices to deputy chief-of-staff in the criminal division.
Unbeknownst to most everyone, Coughlin was actually under investigation by his own bosses for a massive conflict-of-interest with Jack Abramoff's lobbying firm. Tuesday he pleaded guilty in a Washington courtroom to a felony charge. He admitted that he acted as an eager lobbyist for some of Abramoff's pet projects, and according to email evidence in the plea agreement, sought out "friendly" officials who could make things happen. One of those projects was a 16-million dollar proposed jail that Abramoff wanted the Justice Department to fund for his tribal clients. When the Justice Department only approved 9-million dollars, Abramoff's point person, a friend and former Capitol Hill colleague, fired off a "crisis" email. It said that Abramoff "has made it abundantly clear to me that this is the highest priority .... PLEASE let me know how to make this happen."
Two months later, in January of 2002, the Justice Department reversed its decision in Abramoff's favor with the added bonus that the construction contract did not require competitive bidding. The court papers don't say which "friendlys" within Justice made the decision, but the Abramoff lobbyist was so thrilled that he emailed back the written sound of cash registers: "CHA-CHING!!!!"
Coughlin got the standard Abramoff reward: free meals at his now-defunct restaurant, Signatures, tickets to Washington sporting events, including 8 third-row floor tickets for a Wizards basketball game, and a free round of golf. He also hoped to get a job with Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig, but that never materialized. In fact, when Coughlin was detailed to a separate office in Virginia, his Abramoff lobbying friend abruptly stopped wining and dining him.
The guilty plea comes as the Justice Department continues its recovery from the scandal over the firings of US attorneys who allegedly were not considered "friendlys" of the White House. It provides fresh evidence that politics infected decision-making within the department, and in the case of Robert Coughlin, it started when the administration was just two months old.
By Stephanie Lambidakis
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