Safavian Case Goes to Jurors
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The trial of former federal procurement official David H. Safavian went to the jury yesterday, as a prosecutor in closing arguments accused him of lying to federal investigators to conceal the fact that he was "doing Jack Abramoff's bidding."
In response, Safavian's attorney said that the government's case was weak because Abramoff, a disgraced lobbyist who pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to corrupt public officials, did not testify at the three-week trial.
Safavian is the first person to go to trial for Abramoff-related charges, although four others have pleaded guilty to various allegations. Abramoff is cooperating with prosecutors in what has been a spreading Washington scandal.
Federal prosecutor Nathaniel B. Edmonds told the jury in his closing argument that Safavian maintained a "secret, inappropriate and unethical relationship" with Abramoff, his former boss, when Safavian became the deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff of the General Services Administration, the U.S. government's landlord agency.
Abramoff bestowed on Safavian a long list of favors, including a heavily subsidized golfing trip to Scotland and London on a private jet in the summer of 2002, Edmonds said. In exchange, he added, Safavian offered Abramoff "access, he offered connections, he offered power."
In particular, Edmonds said, Safavian arranged high-level meetings at the GSA and gave Abramoff insider information about two valuable properties that the GSA controlled and that the lobbyist coveted: a parcel of land in White Oak and the Old Post Office Pavilion building, on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Abramoff wanted to relocate a Hebrew academy he founded to White Oak, and he hoped to transform the Old Post Office into a five-star hotel.
The two men had a "two-way relationship," Edmonds said. When Safavian had the choice of acting on the public's behalf or helping the private interests of Abramoff, he asserted, Safavian chose Abramoff every time. Safavian is charged with lying about and preventing the government from learning about his aid to Abramoff and the expensive golfing trip that Abramoff bankrolled around the same time.
Edmonds also contended that it was merely a matter of "common sense" that Abramoff had "business before" the GSA and that Safavian was misleading investigators and ethics officers when he told them otherwise from 2002 onward. Neil G. Volz, a onetime lobbyist and former staff member for Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), testified during the trial that Abramoff's team considered Safavian one of the "champions" of its causes inside government.
Safavian's attorney Barbara Van Gelder, said there were "many reasons to doubt the government's evidence." In particular, she asked, "Where's Jack?" -- referring to Abramoff. She said many of the e-mails between Abramoff and Safavian discussed during the trial were weakened as evidence because "Jack Abramoff was not here to answer the questions" that might have arisen about them.
Later, after a private conference with the judge and prosecutors, Van Gelder acknowledged that she could have called Abramoff to the stand, as the prosecutors could have, but chose not to.
She portrayed Safavian's omissions of fact to investigators as "innocent errors" that should not be judged as crimes by the jury because he acted "in good faith." Van Gelder characterized Safavian as "open, courteous, trying to do the right thing" and said he answered any question or requests put to him by investigators.
"There isn't a wrongful, depraved, evil bone in his body," she said. She told members of the jury that they could have witnessed that for themselves when Safavian took the stand in his defense last week, an act that she said he did not have to do.
She also said that Safavian did not assist Abramoff in doing business with the GSA because Abramoff did not have any actual business before the agency. He was not a "contractor," she said.
Besides, she asked, "What did David Safavian do for Jack Abramoff? Nothing." She asserted that Safavian did not have the power to grant Abramoff's wishes on either of the properties.