'Total Business Angle'

Monday, September 26, 2005

THE ARREST LAST WEEK of David H. Safavian, formerly the Bush administration's top procurement official, marks two significant steps in the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Charges that Mr. Safavian lied to federal officials and investigators represent the first criminal prosecution arising from an 18-month probe of Mr. Abramoff's lobbying practices; Mr. Abramoff was indicted last month, but on unrelated charges of wire fraud and conspiracy involving a casino he owned in Florida. Perhaps more ominously for the White House, they also show that Mr. Abramoff's attempts at influence-peddling were not limited to Capitol Hill and that the administration, not only key lawmakers, could be tainted by the investigation.

Mr. Safavian's arrest could hardly have come at a worse time -- or in a worse agency -- for the administration. As head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget, he was responsible -- until his resignation Sept. 16 -- for developing contracting policies for the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding effort.

Likewise, Mr. Safavian's lack of procurement experience echoes the criticism of

former FEMA director Michael D. Brown. What Mr. Safavian did bring to the Bush

administration -- in his OMB job and before that as chief of staff at the General Services Administration, the position involved in the charges against him -- were useful political connections.

The Bush administration is neither the first nor the last to reward political allies. But given GOP professions of outrage over Clinton administration hiring practices -- recall the uproar over Craig Livingstone, the former bouncer who was personnel security director in the Clinton White House before being bounced for collecting FBI files -- it's hard to feel terribly charitable this time around.

The charges against Mr. Safavian concern the now-famous golfing trip Mr. Abramoff led to Scotland in 2002. According to the criminal complaint against him, Mr. Safavian obtained approval from GSA ethics officials to accept a free ride on Mr. Abramoff's chartered aircraft, but he falsely stated that Mr. Abramoff had no business before the agency.

In fact, as depicted in the complaint, Mr. Abramoff was angling -- with Mr. Safavian's behind-the-scenes direction -- for the agency's help on two matters: obtaining a lease on the Old Post Office building for one of his Indian tribal clients and leasing other government property for the private school he founded. Mr. Safavian allegedly shared an internal GSA e-mail with Mr. Abramoff -- on the very day that he received the ethics opinion clearing the Scotland trip -- and helped ghostwrite a letter to the GSA seeking the lease.

Mr. Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, told the New York Times that his discussions about the properties with Mr. Abramoff didn't add up to having business before the agency. Consider, though, Mr. Abramoff's take: When a colleague asked in an e-mail why Mr. Safavian had been invited -- "I like him but didn't know u did as much. Business angle?" -- Mr. Abramoff didn't mince words. "Total business angle," he e-mailed back. "He is new COS of GSA."

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