Safavian Defends Abramoff Dealings

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

David H. Safavian, the former top federal procurement official being tried on charges of lying and obstruction of justice, said yesterday that it "never occurred to me" to question whether the $3,100 he paid lobbyist Jack Abramoff covered the full cost of the week-long golf vacation they took to Scotland and England in 2002.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to corrupt public officials and is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Safavian is the first person to go to trial over Abramoff-related charges, although four others have pleaded guilty to various allegations.

Taking the stand in his own defense, Safavian said he did not see any reason to doubt Abramoff's estimate of the trip's value even though its weekend leg in London was a late add-on and the accommodations, meals and drinks along the way were top of the line, including private jet service between Baltimore, Scotland and England.

Safavian said he believed, for example, that the cost of a round of golf at St. Andrews, the birthplace of the sport in Scotland, was probably "comparable" to the $135 he paid to play golf at a good course in Maryland. He acknowledged, however, that the prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, made "a valid point" in suggesting that the price could have been much higher because a typical tip to a St. Andrews caddie was $100 per round.

Zeidenberg has said that the true cost of Safavian's share of the journey was more than five times the amount Safavian reimbursed Abramoff. In his opening statement, Zeidenberg contended that Safavian had concealed much about the lavish vacation from federal investigators as well as his many efforts to help Abramoff acquire two federal properties from the agency that he worked for at the time.

Safavian denied any such concealment. He spent most of the day answering questions posed by his attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, and reiterating his assertion that he did not mislead investigators about the overseas junket and gave them all the answers they requested. He also said that he did not believe that Abramoff was doing business with his agency, the General Services Administration, because he was not a contractor.

Both Safavian and his wife, Jennifer, testified in U.S. District Court. "I've got to explain my side of the story," Safavian said. "For 10 months I've been catching grenades. It's time."

Jennifer Safavian, a lawyer for a House committee, said she did not wonder whether the $3,100 was too high but rather thought that it was a lot of money to spend on a vacation. Still, she green-lighted the jaunt, she said, because her husband was so excited at the prospect.

Safavian said he helped Abramoff at the GSA out of friendship and contended that his efforts were appropriate because he did not have the power to authorize any property sales and what he did provide to Abramoff and his team was primarily information of the type that was routinely distributed to interested parties.

"There was no action I could have taken to help Mr. Abramoff," Safavian said. Prosecutors have noted, however, that Safavian arranged a meeting between Abramoff and GSA officials right before the Scotland trip about a property Abramoff wanted to lease in White Oak for a Jewish academy he founded.

Safavian conceded that the longer he aided Abramoff, the more uncomfortable he felt. For instance, he said he now regrets forwarding a government e-mail to Abramoff about the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, an underused building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW that Abramoff hoped to convert into a luxury hotel. Safavian said he thought, "I'm probably approaching a line I shouldn't get close to."

But before and during the August 2002 trip abroad, Safavian accepted without detailed probing the value Abramoff set on the trip. Safavian said he asked Abramoff twice whether his $3,100 was enough and that Abramoff responded they were "square."

"Mr. Abramoff had no reason to underbill me," Safavian said. "He knew I was concerned about appearances. Why would he sandbag me?"

On the court's video screens, Zeidenberg showed photos of the wood-paneled, water-view hotel at St. Andrews. Safavian said that, to him, "it looked like a typical hotel dining room." Safavian also said that the private jet was not as spacious as many people imagine it might be and that he did not think at the time that the room he stayed in at the Mandarin Oriental in London could have cost $500 a night.

Prosecutors are expected to continue their cross-examination of Safavian on Monday.

Staff writer Eric Weiss contributed to this report.

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