Montana Project Figured Into Lobbyist’s Arrest

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – A rural road in southeastern Montana has become entangled in the long-running Jack Abramoff scandal, factoring into the arrest of a Washington lobbyist last week.

Kevin Ring, a lobbyist who worked for Montana’s Carter County for several years, pleaded not guilty Sept. 8 to a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of conspiring with jailed former lobbyist Abramoff to win assistance from congressional and executive-branch officials by giving them things of value.

Recommended to Carter County by Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, Ring was hired in 2003 to help obtain federal dollars to pave a portion of gravel highway between the small towns of Alzada and Ekalaka in southeastern Montana. According to the indictment, prosecutors allege he used his inappropriate relationship with a congressional aide to secure some of that money.

Carter County Commissioner Joe Courtney said Ring’s involvement with Abramoff has soured him on federal lobbyists. The county fired Ring when news reports started popping up about his association with Abramoff, he says, and he wouldn’t hire another federal lobbyist again.

“It’s kind of hard because we’re sitting way out here, and we don’t know those people well enough,” Courtney said. “This was just kind of a longshot for us …. We thought we’d just get a little extra money.”

The county did appear to have benefited from having a lobbyist. After receiving about $8 million in the six years leading up to the 2003 budget year, the road received about $6.5 million in the 2004 and 2005 budget years, plus another $9.6 million in the massive 2005 highway bill.

Since then, appropriations for the road have been smaller, though Montana Sen. Max Baucus did earmark $3 million for it in pending spending legislation for the 2009 budget year. Courtney says the county has paved about 29 miles in the last eight years, and will still need to pave another eight or nine miles once current highway money runs out.

For Ring’s services, Carter County paid $152,500 to two firms Ring worked for from 2003 through 2005, according to estimates provided by the firms in lobbying records.

According to Carter County Clerk’s office, the actual amount was closer to $100,000, with the money coming from county tax dollars and private business donations. The last payment recorded to Barnes and Thornburg, Ring’s most recent firm, was at the end of 2005, just before Abramoff pleaded guilty in federal court.

According to the indictment, prosecutors say Ring discussed the project with a key member of the House in 2003.

Ring discussed the project with Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook — then the Republican chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controlled highway spending — and Istook’s aide John Albaugh at a fundraiser Ring held for Istook in a luxury suite at Washington’s MCI Center on July 28, 2003, the indictment says.

Istook, referred to as “Representative 4” in the court documents, did not properly reimburse Ring and Abramoff’s firm for the event, which was held during an American Idol concert, prosecutors said.

The next day, July 29, Ring and Albaugh discussed the project again by e-mail.

“I don’t think it will be a problem … ,” Albaugh replied, according to the indictment.

The Montana road is not specifically mentioned in the indictment, but the amount of money Ring requested for it — $4.183 million — is cited in reference to Ring’s discussion about a “road project” in the luxury suite with Albaugh and Istook. On July 30, 2003, two days after the concert, Istook submitted his transportation appropriations bill with $4.183 million earmarked for “S-323 Alzada-Ekalaka, Montana.”

The indictment also details numerous favors exchanged between Ring and Albaugh, who pleaded guilty in June to a conspiracy to defraud the House. Istook has not been charged. In June, he said he was cooperating with the FBI, but had been told he’s not a target of the investigation.

Carter County wasn’t Ring’s only Montana client. He has also worked for the Dry Prairie Rural Water Authority — an extensive northeastern Montana water project — from 2000 to 2007.

Dry Prairie general manager Clint Jacobs says he sought out Ring because of his connections to California GOP Rep. John Doolittle, who then chaired a key House subcommittee that oversaw water projects. Ring is a former legislative director to Doolittle.

Ring resigned from his lobbying firm in 2007, and the water project now has a new lobbyist — Democrat Edward Ayoob, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who also worked with Abramoff at one point.

Jacobs said the Abramoff scandal has been a “distraction” from the authority’s mission of implementing a desperately needed drinking water system.

“We’re a remote state without very many congressmen, so that creates the necessitation for us to have some representation in D.C.,” Jacobs said. “Without that representation, we would certainly be at a disadvantage against other states.”

Members of Montana’s congressional delegation said they work just as hard even if a project has its own lobbyist.

“Congressman Rehberg has always been, and will continue to be, an advocate for funding important Montana projects regardless of whether or not the folks working on those project are represented by a lobbyist or not,” said his spokesman Jed Link.

A spokesman for Baucus said the state doesn’t need lobbyists at all.

“Max has been fighting for these projects for years and years because they are good projects, he doesn’t need a bunch of lobbyists to tell him what’s right for Montana,” said his spokesman Barrett Kaiser.

Both Rehberg and Baucus received, and later gave away, donations from members of Abramoff’s team — Rehberg from Abramoff and Ring, Baucus from Michael Smith, who also worked on the Carter County and Dry Prairie projects along with other Abramoff associates.

Ring’s indictment was the latest development in the long-running Abramoff investigation, which has netted 13 guilty pleas from former lobbyists and government officials and one former congressman. Earlier this month, Abramoff was sentenced to four years in prison.