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Trial Likely to Re-Open Abramoff Chapters

A cast of former Congressional aides and lobbyists who have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the influence-peddling investigation of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff are expected to emerge from the shadows this month as the criminal trial of a former “Team Abramoff— deputy gets under way.

Opening arguments in the criminal trial of former-House-aide-turned-lobbyist Kevin Ring could begin as early as Friday, with the case anticipated to last approximately six weeks.

Ring, a former aide to then-Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) who left Capitol Hill to join Abramoff’s lobbying team, is charged with 10 counts including bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud.

He has denied wrongdoing and did not accept a government-proposed plea bargain revealed in court earlier this year.

Although the government’s witness list appeared in flux according to court documents, federal prosecutors have said they could call up to 15 individuals.

Federal prosecutors are expected to call several “cooperating witnesses— to testify in the trial who have already pleaded guilty to related charges but have yet to be sentenced as they continue to cooperate with the Justice Department investigation.

Former Abramoff deputy Todd Boulanger, a one-time aide to then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), who pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to defraud the government, is among the expected witnesses. Prosecutors may also call John Albaugh, chief of staff to then-Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who pleaded guilty in 2008 to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud; Ann Copland, a former aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who pleaded guilty in March to honest services wire fraud; and Robert Coughlin, a former top Justice Department official, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to violating conflict of interest laws.

Among those four, only Coughlin has a sentencing date scheduled in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, set for late November. He faces a maximum sentence of up to 5 years in prison and three years of probation, as well as a fine of up to $250,000.

Coughlin’s attorney declined to confirm where the former Justice official is now employed, citing concerns for his privacy.

In the meantime, Boulanger’s attorneys and prosecutors are scheduled to file a report to the court in late October regarding the status of his case.

Although Boulanger remains active in D.C. tracking political developments for clients’ intelligence work, according to a source who asked not to be named, he did not return e-mails seeking comment for this article. His attorney did not return a telephone call.

Albaugh is scheduled to appear in court in mid-October for a status hearing. An attorney could not immediately confirm his current employment, although Albaugh has sought permission from the court to travel to South Carolina for work.

Copland’s attorney and prosecutors have requested an extension of her next status report to December. Copland, who left the Hill to work for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is not currently employed.

In addition, federal prosecutors have said they may call Neil Volz, former chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) turned lobbyist, as well as Shawn Vasell, an aide to then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) who later worked with Abramoff.

Volz pleaded guilty in 2006 to helping Abramoff bribe Ney and was sentenced in 2007 to two years probation, as well as community service and a $2,000 fine.

He has also previously testified against David Safavian — a former Office of Management and Budget official convicted in December 2008 for lying to ethics officials about his relationship with Abramoff. Safavian is scheduled to be sentenced in mid-October.

As recently as February 2008, media reports quoted Volz as an official for U.S. VETS, an organization that assists homeless veterans, but he could not be located Tuesday.

According to disclosure documents filed by Hewlett-Packard in the second quarter of this year, Vasell serves as a lobbyist for the company.

Among the witnesses Ring may call in his defense are David Ayres, former chief of staff to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and his wife, Laura Ayres.

Ring’s attorneys have filed a motion seeking to immunize the Ayres couple from prosecution for their testimony, asserting that the witnesses are strongly expected to otherwise invoke the Fifth Amendment to protect themselves against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. David Ayres is alleged to have helped an Abramoff client while he was at the Justice Department and received in exchange tickets to various sporting events from Team Abramoff. Prosecutors have refused to immunize the couple.

Also scheduled to appear in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today is Horace Cooper, a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who is to be arraigned on a five-count indictment — including conspiracy and false statements — in the Abramoff investigation.

Only three individuals charged in the Abramoff investigation have thus far challenged the Justice Department’s charges, including Safavian, Ring and Fraser Verrusio, a former aide to then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska). Verrusio is scheduled to appear for a status hearing in November.

Overall, 20 people have been convicted, pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial in connection with the Abramoff investigation.

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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