Former top Ashcroft aide takes the fifth
Former top Ashcroft aide takes the fifth in trial related to Abramoff lobbying scandal


A top aide to former Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination Thursday in a trial related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

David Ayers, who was Ashcroft's chief of staff at the Justice Department during the Bush administration, refused to answer questions under oath about tickets he received from Abramoff's firm and any favors he may have granted for the firm's clients.

Ayers was called as a defense witness in the corruption trial of Abramoff deputy Kevin Ring. Ring faces charges that he illegally influenced federal officials by providing them with expensive meals, drinks and tickets to concerts and sporting events.

Prosecutors say Ayers helped Ring get Justice Department funding for one of his clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to build a $16.3 million jail on their reservation. Prosecutors say Ring, with Abramoff signing off, then gave Ayers highly sought-after tickets to the 2002 NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament in Washington.

"Based on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer, invoking my constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment," Ayers said repeatedly in response to questioning about the jail and the tickets from Ring attorney Andrew Wise.

Ayers' wife, Laura, also was called to testify by Ring's attorneys and invoked the Fifth Amendment by reading a similar line off a piece of paper she held in her lap. Prosecutors say Laura Ayers asked Ring for Washington Wizards basketball tickets in January 2003, saying she wanted to give them to her husband for his birthday.

The prosecutors say Ayers did not disclose any of the tickets on his financial disclosure forms as he was required to do under the law.

Ayers, now CEO of consulting firm The Ashcroft Group, has known Ring since 1998 when they both worked for Ashcroft when he was a Republican senator from Missouri. President George W. Bush named Ashcroft as his first attorney general after winning the 2000 election.

The Ayers have refused to speak with investigators in the Abramoff matter, which so far has led to criminal charges against 20 lobbyists and public officials who allegedly traded favors. Sixteen people have pleaded guilty, including Abramoff and former Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney.

Ring is only the second defendant to go to trial in the Abramoff scandal. The other was David Safavian, the government's former chief procurement officer, who was found guilty of lying to investigators by two separate juries after winning a second trial on appeal.

Others have pleaded their cases without going in front of a jury.

Ring says he was only using the standard tools of the lobbying trade by buying the meals and tickets and did nothing illegal. Wise said in court that he believes the Ayers could help prove their case, and he asked the judge to force prosecutors to grant the couple immunity so they will feel free to testify on his behalf.

But U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said she doubt she has the authority to grant immunity and denied Wise's request.