We now know that former Justice Department official Robert Coughlin has pled guilty to criminal conflict of interest for improperly assisting the lobbying team of disgraced Republican booster Jack Abramoff. What we don't know is this: Just how important will this story become and what light might it shine on the prosecutions of Don Siegelman in Alabama and Paul Minor in Mississippi?
Much is still to be learned about the Coughlin case. As part of his plea deal, Coughlin has agreed to cooperate with an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General. That makes me think a number of Republicans, some in Alabama and Mississippi, might be doing serious squirming right about now. It also makes me think that a massive coverup effort is probably in the works.
Republicans have done a masterful job, so far, of limiting damage from the Abramoff affair. But will their luck hold out? That probably depends, to a great extent on First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Goldberg, a 19-year Justice Department veteran who is leading the investigation. If Goldberg is a tough and honorable public servant (and press reports indicate that he might be just that) and if Congress girds its loins to look into the matter, the Coughlin story could prove to be huge.
It's also encouraging that the press, so far, is doing big-time work on this story. Marisa Taylor, of McClatchy Newspapers, broke the story. Susan Schmidt, of the Wall Street Journal, wrote an expansive piece (not available online). James Grimaldi of the Washington Post followed with a major story. And perhaps the most comprehensive report so far comes from reporters Joe Palazzolo and Pedro Ruz Gutierrez at Legal Times.
The Legal Times story is a splendid piece of journalism. It says that Coughlin and at least two other unnamed Justice officials helped secure a $16.3 million grant for a jail for an Abramoff client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
And here is what's really disturbing from the article:
Court documents filed in Coughlin's case and e-mails released through congressional investigations are explicit about Team Abramoff's line into the Justice Department: Coughlin was one of many "friendlies," as they are identified in Coughlin's statement of offense.
The article states that attention, till now, had focused primarily on Abramoff's influence in Congress. "Little attention, however, focused on Team Abramoff's sway in the Justice Department," Palazzolo and Gutierrez write.
And then there is this regarding Abramoff's lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig:
A review of e-mails released by Greenberg Traurig to congressional investigators four years ago shows that (Kevin) Ring, (Tony) Rudy and other Abramoff associates had friends throughout the (justice) department.
Try to wrap your minds around that, folks. One of the most corrupt political figures in modern American history had a direct pipeline into our justice department. And he was seeking political favors.
What could this mean for the Siegelman and Minor prosecutions in Alabama and Mississippi, respectively? Hard to answer that question definitely at this point. But let's consider some of the issues the Coughlin case raises in our neck of the woods:
* National press reports have said Coughlin resigned recently as deputy chief of staff in the Justice Department's criminal division. He also worked in the department's legislative-affairs office in 2001-02. It's unclear what role Coughlin might have played in prosecutions. But the Jackson Free Press, an independent weekly in Mississippi, has reported that Coughlin served in the Public Integrity Section and was part of the prosecution team in the Paul Minor case. The Free Press quotes Bill Minor, a longtime Mississippi journalist and father of Paul Minor, saying that Coughlin was among the prosecutors in his son's case.
* E-mails referred to in the Legal Times story show a clear pattern of communication between Abramoff and Karl Rove. Does that lend support to the idea that Rove was involved in pushing the Siegelman prosecution, and perhaps the Minor prosecution, too?
* What would it mean if Coughlin, an Abramoff "friendly," was serving on the prosecution team against Paul Minor, a well-known supporter of Democratic candidates and causes? What does that say about the political nature of the Minor prosecution?
* Was Coughlin involved, in any way, in the Don Siegelman case in Alabama? What would that mean, given that it has been reported that Abramoff funneled huge amounts of campaign dollars to Siegelman's opponent, Bob Riley, in the 2002 governor's race?
* Speaking of Bob Riley, his name always comes to mind when you hear the words "Abramoff," "Mississippi Choctaws," and "cash." Did Riley and his Alabama compadres (Bill Canary, Dax Swatek, Rob Riley, Steve Windom, others) have involvement with Coughlin?
* What became of that $16.3 million that was supposed to go for a jail for the Mississippi Choctaws? Isn't that an awful lot of money for a jail? Hasn't Abramoff confessed to taking Choctaw money and deflecting it to political purposes? What did he do with that jail money? Did anyone from Justice follow up to make sure the grant was used for its intended purposes? Is it possible that folks at Justice knew all along the money was going to be used for political purposes?
As you can see the questions are voluminous and dense. But Robert Coughlin could provide a major window into the world of "justice" in the Age of Rove.