By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Before he was indicted on five felony counts of lying to investigators, David H. Safavian was positioned to break out of the pack of Republican operatives working in Washington.
Just 38, he was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the president's Office of Management and Budget, with the authority to make the rules governing $300 billion in annual expenditures, including those in response to Hurricane Katrina.
But that was before federal agents appeared at his home on Sept. 19 and arrested Safavian in connection with the investigation of Jack Abramoff, charging that Safavian lied about his dealings with the onetime powerhouse lobbyist and misled investigators from the General Services Administration and the Senate.
Knowing the indictment was imminent, Safavian had resigned his post three days earlier, derailing a government career he had carefully planned and skillfully executed.
Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said the indictment is mainly a tactic by prosecutors to force Safavian to testify against Abramoff. At a hearing Monday, she demanded documents from the Abramoff criminal investigation that refer to Safavian.
Abramoff is under investigation by the Senate and several government agencies in connection with $82 million he and a partner charged Native American groups for lobbying and public relations services and other matters dealing with elected and appointed officials. He also has been charged with wire fraud and conspiracy in connection with the purchase of a casino cruise company in Florida.
Those close to Safavian say that whatever the outcome of the charges against him, he faces serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles to getting his career in Washington back on track.
Safavian set out a decade ago to win the backing of influential conservative Republicans such as Abramoff and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. In the intense competition for power in Washington, Safavian climbed the political ladder in the relatively short span of 10 years.
With a degree from the Detroit College of Law and a master's in tax law from Georgetown University, the Pontiac, Mich., native began as an associate lobbyist in 1995 at Preston, Gates and Ellis, where Abramoff was a lobbyist. Later he worked as a principal at Janus-Merritt Strategies, where Norquist was a consultant.
Safavian represented controversial but often lucrative clients, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Distilled Spirits Council, the Interactive Gaming Council and the National Indian Gaming Association.
An Iranian American, Safavian was a founding member of the board of Norquist's Islamic Free Market Institute, when the Bush campaign was targeting Arab American voters in key states such as Florida and Michigan.
Norquist, who welcomed Safavian to the board of the institute in 1999, declined to answer questions about Safavian.
In 2001, Safavian began a remarkable, four-year ascent in government. He first served in 2001-02 as chief of staff to Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah). Then, in June 2002, Safavian moved to the executive branch with a plum assignment: chief of staff at the General Services Administration. GSA is the government's bread and butter agency, letting contracts for construction as well as buying goods and services.
Safavian's big break came on Nov. 4, 2003, when President Bush nominated him to become the powerful administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. The post is crucial to the information technology, contracting and services industries, whose contractors can have millions of dollars riding on every OFPP decision.
The Safavian appointment brought immediate plaudits from the government contracting community. Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, described Safavian as "a good man, and he's aware of the policies in play."
Safavian, however, needed Senate confirmation and ran into problems. One involved representation of a client at Janus-Merritt. The firm listed Abdurahman Alamoudi as a client starting on Sept. 18, 2000. Safavian was one of five lobbyists listed as working on the Alamoudi account.
Alamoudi, a prominent Muslim activist, was sentenced last year to 23 years in prison for conspiring to assassinate then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. In July, the Treasury Department charged that Alamoudi "raised money for al Qaeda in the United States."
Before those troubles, Alamoudi spoke at an October 2000 rally in front of the White House, where he declared his support for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Janus-Merritt Strategies continued to identify Alamoudi as a client in its next two reports to the Senate, listing receipt of two $20,0000 payments. But in December 2001, it declared that "an error" had been made and that Alamoudi was not a client. Instead, another man, Jamal Barzinji of Herndon, should have been listed as the firm's contact.
Safavian confirmed the change in written answers to the staff of the Senate Government Affairs Committee in April 2004.
On March 20, 2002, FBI, IRS and Custom Services agents raided the Herndon office building listed by Janus-Merritt as Barzinji's address, as well as Barzinji's nearby home. In an affidavit, the government said three agencies had been investigating whether groups at that address were providing material support to terrorists, laundering money and evading taxes. No charges have been filed against Barzinji, and he has denied wrongdoing.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy would not say whether the administration had looked into Safavian's relationship with Alamoudi and Barzinji before nominating him. "We are cooperating fully with the Department of Justice investigation," she said.
On June 2, 2004, the Government Affairs Committee unanimously approved Safavian's nomination. The Senate confirmed him Nov. 21, 2004, but not before he ran into more trouble.
On Sept 28, 2004, The Washington Post disclosed that in August 2002, Safavian, who was then at the GSA, had gone on a golfing trip to Scotland arranged by Abramoff. House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and lobbyist and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed were also on the trip.
Safavian told GSA officials when he took the trip that he had no business dealings with Abramoff. The federal affidavit filed when Safavian was arrested says Abramoff had asked Safavian about acquiring property controlled by the GSA, butSafavian's lawyer contends the inquiries did not constitute "doing business," and said Safavian paid his share of the $120,000-plus trip by giving Abramoff a check for $3,100.
Safavian and Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, declined to comment. OMB spokesman Alex Conant said, "We don't comment on personnel and security issues. . . . Mr. Safavian resigned and is no longer an OMB employee. OMB is cooperating fully with the Department of Justice's investigation."