Safavian Lied About Dealings With Abramoff, Prosecutor Says

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Prosecutors accused David H. Safavian, the federal government's former top procurement official, of lying repeatedly to investigators as the first trial related to the political corruption scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff got underway yesterday.

Safavian is accused of concealing the truth and obstructing federal inquiries about his relationship with Abramoff and also about a golfing trip the two men took in 2002 to Scotland and London. Prosecutors signaled that they plan to rely heavily on hundreds of e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff to show that Abramoff was seeking two government properties over which Safavian had influence while offering Safavian favors, including the overseas trip.

"The defendant lied, concealed and misled" federal investigators about his dealings with Abramoff, prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg told a jury in U.S. District Court here yesterday. Zeidenberg said that he would show "examples of concrete assistance" that Safavian offered to Abramoff and also prove that Safavian lied about the details of his interactions with Abramoff to Senate staffers and to an ethics officer and an investigator of the General Services Administration, where Safavian worked at the time.

In response, Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said, "This evidence is mostly paper," referring to the e-mail traffic. She added, "Don't believe everything you read."

"David Safavian never lied," she said. Rather, she asserted, prosecutors were trying to prove Safavian's "guilt by association" with Abramoff, who this year pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to corrupt public officials, but in 2002 was a highly regarded lobbyist and longtime Safavian friend. "David Safavian was not in Jack Abramoff's pocket, but he was his friend," Van Gelder said.

The crux of her defense, she explained, would be to show that Abramoff was not engaged in any formal business with the GSA -- in the form of contracts or bids -- and that while Safavian might have been misled by Abramoff, he had been forthright with federal investigators.

The Abramoff affairs have so far led to guilty pleas by Abramoff and four of his former associates. The Safavian case is the first Abramoff-related case to go to trial, and its outcome is considered by legal experts an important gauge of how successful similar cases might be.

Safavian, 38, was arrested last September, and he resigned as the White House's chief procurement officer. Earlier in his career, he had been a lobbyist with anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist and separately with Abramoff, and also worked as a congressional aide.

At the time of the e-mail exchanges discussed in court, Safavian was the deputy chief of staff and later chief of staff at the GSA, the agency that oversees the purchase and leasing of the government's billions of dollars in property around the country.

Soon after Safavian went to the GSA in May 2002, Zeidenberg said, Abramoff and Safavian began e-mailing each other about two properties controlled by the GSA that Abramoff wanted to acquire. One was a parcel of land in White Oak, on which Abramoff hoped to situate a Jewish high school he founded. The second was the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, midway between the White House and Capitol Hill. Abramoff wanted to convert the historic but underused structure into a luxury hotel.

Some of the e-mails were filled with information on the status of both properties. The subject line of one e-mail from Safavian to Abramoff read "Status of White Oak." At the same time, Safavian was invited and agreed to attend the junket to St. Andrews in Scotland, the reputed birthplace of golf, which was arranged by Abramoff and included congressional aides and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who is now under investigation by the Justice Department for his connections to Abramoff.

Before he went on the trip that summer, Safavian asked the GSA ethics office whether he could accept airfare for the trip without breaching the agency's code of conduct. In an e-mail requesting the ruling, Safavian called Abramoff a friend and a lobbyist "but one that has no business before GSA (he does all of this work on Capitol Hill)." The office replied that Safavian could accept the airfare. Nonetheless, Safavian wrote Abramoff a check for $3,100 before the journey began.

Zeidenberg called that check "window dressing" because it represented a small fraction of the actual cost of the trip, which included private jet service and a week's worth of first-class accommodations in Scotland and London. He also said that Safavian lied about Abramoff's interaction with the GSA, citing the many e-mails between the men about White Oak and the Old Post Office.

Shortly before the group flew off to golf in August 2002, Abramoff attended a meeting -- arranged by Safavian -- about the White Oak property at GSA headquarters in Washington, Zeidenberg said.

Abramoff is not expected to testify at the Safavian trial, which is likely to continue into next week. He pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of bribery, conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud. As early as today Neil G. Volz, a former top aide to Ney and a former lobbying partner of Abramoff's, is expected to testify. Volz pleaded guilty May 8 to attempting to corrupt public officials.

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