WASHINGTON — A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in the case of a former lobbyist caught up in the Jack Abramoff affair, the biggest setback in the government's long-running prosecution of the influence-peddling scandal.
The jury deadlocked over seven counts alleging that Kevin Ring lavished thousands of dollars worth of tickets and meals on employees of then-Republican Reps. John Doolittle of California and Ernest Istook of Oklahoma and on Justice Department officials in return for congressional appropriations and other assistance for Abramoff's clients.
The panel of seven women and five men also was unable to reach a verdict on an eighth count, on Ring's part in arranging a job that paid $96,000 to Doolittle's wife. On Tuesday, jurors said they had reached a verdict on that count, although they did not disclose what it was. In two more days of deliberating about the case, the jurors' agreement on that count came undone.
Ring, who declined to comment as he left the courtroom after the mistrial was declared, is a former aide to Doolittle. The ex-congressman, who has not been charged, was named by the government as an unindicted coconspirator in the case.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle raised the prospect of a retrial. Ring's lawyers objected, saying that cases pending before the Supreme Court could result in decisions that undercut the law federal prosecutors used in charging Ring. The prosecution said the government does intend to seek a date for a retrial but that it wants to meet with the judge and defense counsel about next steps. The judge set a status conference for Monday.
The protracted criminal investigation has sent Abramoff and former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio to prison and led to guilty pleas by 15 other people.
Ring's lawyers called no witnesses to the stand, instead making their case by eliciting testimony on cross-examination that was favorable to Ring from prosecution witnesses who were longtime associates of the lobbyist.
"It sounds sinister to talk about meals and tickets, near in time to when folks are being asked to take official actions," one of Ring's lawyers told the jury in closing arguments. "It is the way lobbying works, it is the way politics works. ... This is not a sign of a bribe. This is not the sign of a corrupt relationship."
During deliberations, the jurors asked the judge whether there was a legal limit on the dollar value of meals and tickets lobbyists could provide public officials. There wasn't, Huvelle said.
In a brief interview, Istook said Thursday only one person in the congressman's former office was accused of improper behavior. John Albaugh, a one-time top aide to Istook, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the House in the Abramoff scandal. He is cooperating with prosecutors.
The Justice Department also has two obstruction of justice charges pending against Ring alleging that he misled investigators who were looking into the Abramoff scandal. The trial of the two obstruction counts was severed from the others and that trial has yet to be scheduled.
Ring is only the second person implicated in the Abramoff scandal to fight the criminal charges at trial rather than pleading guilty and cutting a deal to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence. The other was David Safavian, the George W. Bush administration's former chief procurement officer, whose convictions were overturned following a trial in 2006. Safavian was convicted again in a retrial and faces sentencing Friday.