By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
In the first public testimony by a member of Jack Abramoff's inner circle, a former congressional aide told a federal jury yesterday how the disgraced lobbyist identified his "champions" in government and then showered them with favors to get inside information and help for his clients.
Neil G. Volz, who was chief of staff to Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) before joining Abramoff's lobbying firm, testified that among those he and his colleagues considered allies were Ney and former General Services Administration official David H. Safavian, the first person brought to trial in connection with the Abramoff scandal.
Central to Team Abramoff's lobbying operation, Volz said, was developing contacts in government "who operate at a higher level" and who "for whatever reason want to help you out."
"We would call them 'champions,' " Volz told a U.S. District Court jury, now in its second week hearing evidence that Safavian lied to GSA and ethics officials about his dealings with Abramoff.
Volz testified that Safavian and Ney guided the lobbyists as they looked for ways to gain access to government-owned land in Maryland, which Abramoff wanted for a religious school, in the weeks before the lobbyists took the two officials on a luxury golf trip to Scotland.
"David was kind of the brains of the operation," Volz said, portraying Safavian as eager to aid the lobbyists on several projects before and after the Scotland trip.
Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, tried to chip away at Volz's credibility, eliciting admissions from him that he helped Ney and two staff members provide false information about the cost and the purpose of the Scotland trip to the clerk of the House. Volz admitted that he unsuccessfully floated the idea of embellishing Ney's contacts by suggesting he attended an event that included Queen Elizabeth II.
Volz, 35, is the fourth former Abramoff associate to plead guilty in the wide-ranging investigation into the lobbyist's activities. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy. Volz admitted to conspiring to deprive the public of honest services and violate the one-year ban on lobbying a former boss after he left the Hill in early 2002. He could receive a sentence of five years in prison, but hopes his cooperation will result in a recommendation for probation only.
Volz's plea was considered bad news for Ney, his former boss, one of half a dozen lawmakers under scrutiny because of ties to Abramoff. The congressman has said that he did nothing wrong and that he would not step down even if indicted.
Volz suggested yesterday that Safavian had urged him to keep silent. He said he ran into Safavian at a 2005 fundraiser, just after Volz had his picture taken with President Bush. Safavian "pulled me aside," Volz said. He said the FBI had questioned him and brought up Volz's name. Said Volz: "It was definitely a pop-the-balloon moment."
A few weeks later, in early summer 2005, Volz said he ran into Safavian outside the Old Executive Office Building, where Safavian worked as the government's top procurement official at the Office of Management and Budget.
"I was trying to hurry off," Volz told the jury, explaining that he, too, had been talking to the FBI. "David mentioned to me at that time, 'Well, we all have to stick together' '' -- a statement that Volz said made him "very nervous."
Volz painted a picture for jurors of the way Team Abramoff did business. "When I was on Capitol Hill, I was given tickets to sporting events, concerts, free food, free meals," he testified. "In return, I gave preferential treatment to my lobbying buddies." After he left the Hill to join Abramoff, Volz said, he took on the role of doling out the favors and seeking special treatment.
Abramoff set up the Scotland trip in summer 2002. Besides Ney and Safavian, guests included Ney's chief of staff, William Heaton; Paul D. Vinovich, a lawyer on the House Administration Committee, which Ney then chaired; lobbyist Michael Williams; and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, an Abramoff business partner. They took a chartered Gulfstream II jet, golfed the Old Course at fabled St. Andrews in Scotland, then flew to London for two nights at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Prosecutors have provided evidence showing that the per-person cost was far beyond the $3,100 Safavian paid out of his pocket.
A dinner with Scottish parliamentarians that would have provided some official purpose for the U.S. group was canceled, Volz testified. When the group arrived in London, he said, members tried to set up some sort of government meeting. Ney, Volz said, "told me he went over and met with someone in the British Parliament building."
Safavian, who formerly worked with Abramoff, arrived at GSA as chief of staff in May 2002. He and Abramoff began e-mailing each other about two properties controlled by the GSA. One was land in White Oak, in Montgomery County, where Abramoff hoped to relocate a Jewish academy he founded.
On advice from Safavian, Volz said, the lobbyists first tried to insert language in an election reform bill. "We had a champion in the Congress who had already agreed to attach another provision," Volz testified, identifying the lawmaker as "Congressman Ney." Ney had agreed to try to add language to the same bill that would have aided a Texas Indian tribe represented by Abramoff.
When that did not work, Volz said, Ney told him of another "potential vehicle" on the legislative agenda, a line of questioning U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman cut off as "hearsay" evidence. Volz sought help in receiving information on the land from GSA through an inquiry by the chief of staff to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), but backed off when the GSA asked Capito's office why she wanted the information.
The second property Abramoff sought was the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Abramoff, with a tribal client, wanted to convert it into a luxury hotel and sought to have GSA tailor the bid specifications to the advantage of the tribe. "We were trying to rig the rule so our client could get the best chance," Volz said.
He and Williams solicited letters to GSA from Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), though in the end their efforts were not "the golden plan we were hoping for," Volz said. Nonetheless, he said, Safavian "concurred with my advice that it was better to have the letter from the Hill before the bid was set."
Van Gelder is seeking to prove that Safavian was a friend of Abramoff's, not a business associate, that Safavian was open and honest with federal investigators, and that Abramoff was not engaged in any formal business dealings with the GSA.