As California GOP Rep. John Doolittle awaits prosecutors' next move in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, his future is tied to that of a former aide who also worked with Abramoff.
Kevin Ring, Doolittle's one-time legislative director, quit his lobbying job last month, the same day FBI agents raided Doolittle's Virginia home. They had a search warrant for a fundraising business run there by Doolittle's wife, Julie, that had done work for Abramoff's firm.
Doolittle said Thursday he understands his wife's work might be under scrutiny.
"That's the issue, apparently, that Julie didn't do any real work ... their theory seems to be that she's a conduit," Doolittle told reporters. "And there's clear evidence that disproves that."
The Abramoff connection
Ring, a 36-year-old married father of two, figures prominently in his former boss' connections to Abramoff, a friend of Doolittle's who gave the congressman campaign cash and use of his sports box. Doolittle, who has denied wrongdoing, tried to advance the agendas of Abramoff's clients both in Congress and with the Bush administration.
What Ring tells prosecutors could determine Doolittle's fate.
"The incentive for the subordinate to cooperate is to save his own skin by implicating a superior," said Kenneth Gross, a political law attorney in Washington.
Doolittle's chief of staff, Richard Robinson, and Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra declined to comment for this story, and Ring's attorney, Richard Hibey, didn't return calls.
As a lobbyist, Ring was a principal contact between Abramoff's firm and Doolittle, who came close to losing re-election to a ninth term last year amid questions about his ethics.
Ring's connection to the scandal, which has already netted 11 convictions of GOP congressional aides, Bush administration officials and others, runs contrary to the conservative, hardworking, humorous colleague that ex-Doolittle staffers remember.
They say Ring and Doolittle developed a friendship around their shared conservative views when Ring joined Doolittle's staff as an intern in 1993, straight off Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. Both men were religious, Doolittle a Mormon and Ring a Catholic.
Ring and Doolittle were both "very strong in their convictions," said Terra Brusseau, Doolittle's former scheduler. She described both men as "very morally grounded."
Ring acted as a go-between when Doolittle wanted Abramoff, now in jail and cooperating with the government, to find work for Mrs. Doolittle. Ring left Doolittle's office in 1997 to work for then-Sen. John Ashcroft, then joined a House conservative group that Doolittle helped found before going to work for Abramoff's Preston Gates in 2000.
That year, Ring e-mailed Abramoff about Doolittle's interest in finding work for Mrs. Doolittle, according to documents released by Senate investigators last year. Aides said the Doolittles didn't recall that, and no job came through at that time.
In September 2002, Abramoff retained Julie Doolittle's Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc. for about $5,000 a month for administrative work and planning a fundraiser that was eventually canceled. The arrangement lasted through February 2004.
Once at Preston Gates, Ring lobbied Doolittle on issues from water projects to labor laws.
According to billing records released by one Abramoff client, the Northern Mariana Islands, Ring billed the Marianas for at least 13 contacts with Doolittle and his staff from May through October of 2001. Doolittle took various actions to advance Abramoff's agenda for the Marianas around that time, including circulating a letter to House colleagues touting improved working conditions there, according to a report in the islands' Saipan Tribune.
Ring's connections to Doolittle helped him pick up clients in or near Doolittle's Sacramento-area district. Also, the Dry Prairie Rural Water Authority in Montana sought Ring out in 2000 to get access to Doolittle, who chaired a key House subcommittee, regarding federal authorization for a water project.
Dry Prairie general manager Clint Jacobs said his agency maintained confidence in Ring even after Ring's name surfaced in the Abramoff case. "We don't just hear rumors from Washington, D.C., and go out and change our representation," he said.
Ring called last month to say he was leaving Barnes & Thornburg LLP because of the investigation's apparent change in focus, Jacobs said. Ring joined Barnes & Thornburg in 2005 after leaving Abramoff's second firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Already Abramoff prosecutors have collected a guilty plea from one former member of Congress, Republican Bob Ney of Ohio, after first getting a former aide to plead guilty. Prosecutors wrung pleas from two other figures in the Abramoff case in part with promises not to prosecute their wives.