|Posted on Fri, Apr. 27, 2007|
WASHINGTON - A senior Justice Department official has resigned after coming under scrutiny in the Department’s expanding investigation of convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to a Justice Department official with knowledge of the case.
Making the situation more awkward for the embattled Department, the official, Robert E. Coughlin II, was deputy chief of staff for the criminal division, which is overseeing the Department’s probe of Abramoff.
He stepped down effective April 6 as investigators in Coughlin’s own division ratcheted up their investigation of lobbyist Kevin Ring, Coughlin’s long-time friend and a key associate of Abramoff.
When contacted at his home in Washington, Coughlin said he resigned voluntarily because he was relocating to Texas. “I was not asked to resign,” he said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. “It’s important to me that it's made clear that I left voluntarily.”
He said he couldn’t comment on the Abramoff investigation, nor on whether he has a job lined up in Texas. He referred all other questions to friend Michael Horowitz.
Horowitz, a criminal defense attorney and former Justice Department official and public corruption prosecutor, did not respond to questions, including about whether he is representing Coughlin. Coughlin also would not say whether he had hired a lawyer.
McClatchy’s source at the Justice Department asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case.
Coughlin appears to be the first Justice Department official to come under scrutiny in the wide-ranging probe that has implicated a veteran congressman, a deputy Cabinet secretary, a White House aide and eight others. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to three counts in the corruption probe and could face up to 11 years in prison.
It was unclear whether Coughlin is a target in the investigation, which would mean he is under intense scrutiny, or whether he is a subject in the investigation, which would mean investigators have not yet determined whether he committed any wrongdoing.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to respond to any questions about the Abramoff investigation because it is still ongoing. Spokesman Bryan Sierra, however, confirmed Coughlin had resigned. He also said Coughlin had recused himself from the Abramoff investigation.
The disclosure, nevertheless, was another blow to a Justice Department already struggling to recover from the controversy over the firing of 8 U.S. Attorneys. Democrats and a number of Republicans have criticized Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his handling of the ousters, which critics charge were politically motivated.