By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
A federal jury found former White House aide David H. Safavian guilty yesterday of lying and obstructing justice, making him the highest-ranking government official to be convicted in the spreading scandal involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Safavian, a former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, was convicted in U.S. District Court here of covering up his many efforts to assist Abramoff in acquiring two properties controlled by the GSA, and also of concealing facts about a lavish weeklong golf trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland and London in the summer of 2002.
This was the first Abramoff-related legal action to go to trial and face a jury. Several legal experts said the case could embolden federal prosecutors to seek additional indictments against cronies of Abramoff, who has been cooperating with the Justice Department since pleading guilty in January to corrupting public officials.
The jury of 10 women and two men came to its decision on its fifth day of deliberations after hearing eight days of testimony. Safavian, 38, sat silently and without expression as U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman read the verdict aloud.
The jury found him guilty of obstructing an inquiry by the inspector general's office of the GSA and of lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a GSA ethics officer and the GSA inspector general. He was acquitted of obstructing the Senate's probe. He faces up to 20 years in jail and $1 million in fines; sentencing was set for Oct. 12.
Safavian's attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said she will seek a new trial. Prosecutors "will say how this was a great day in the war on corruption," she said. "I find they made a mountain out of a molehill, and now they're going to plant the flag on top of the molehill."
Safavian is the fifth person to be found guilty in legal actions connected to Abramoff, the once-powerful Republican lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe government officials. Like Abramoff, the other four negotiated plea agreements and did not go to trial. One of those, Neil G. Volz, a congressional aide-turned-lobbyist, testified against Safavian two weeks ago.
Legal observers cited the effectiveness of Volz's testimony as a strong indication that other Abramoff-related indictments or plea agreements are probably imminent. They asserted that Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) is in particular jeopardy because he took part in the Scotland trip and has been mentioned in a veiled way in Abramoff-related guilty pleas, and because Volz, as Ney's former chief of staff, is in a position to testify against him.
Safavian's conviction "bolsters the credibility of Neil Volz as a witness," said Stanley M. Brand, an expert on ethics law. "This is another building block in the case against Ney."
Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, added: "This is the type of conviction that tends to loosen tongues."
Spokesman Brian J. Walsh said in a statement that Ney faces no greater danger of prosecution than he did before the verdict. "The Safavian case had nothing to do with Congressman Ney," Walsh said. "He is confident that . . . he will be vindicated."
Besides Volz, the Justice Department has gotten guilty pleas from Abramoff associates Michael Scanlon, a public relations executive; Adam Kidan, a partner of Abramoff's in a Florida gambling-boat investment; and lobbyist Tony C. Rudy, once a top aide to former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
A federal judge in Miami yesterday granted Abramoff and Kidan three more months of freedom before they must begin prison terms for fraud convictions in a separate case involving the purchase of a cruise-ship line. This will give the two more time to cooperate with investigations into official corruption in Washington and into the 2001 slaying in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of businessman Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, who was killed a few months after he sold SunCruz Casinos to the pair.
Days before his arrest in September, Safavian had resigned as the White House's chief procurement policy officer, a job he got after leaving the GSA. He had worked earlier as a lobbyist for Abramoff and also as a congressional aide.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges and, in a surprise move, took the stand in his defense. His wife, Jennifer, also testified. Safavian contended that he was a friend and not a business associate of Abramoff's, that he was forthright with federal investigators, and that Abramoff was not engaged in formal business dealings with the GSA because he was not a contractor with the agency.
But prosecutors Peter Zeidenberg and Nathaniel B. Edmonds introduced dozens of e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff to show the jury that Abramoff sought two government properties Safavian's agency oversaw while offering him favors, including the overseas trip. They did not call Abramoff to testify.
In mid-2002, Safavian joined the GSA, which oversees the purchase and leasing of the federal government's billions of dollars in property around the country. Soon after he arrived at the agency, he and Abramoff began e-mailing each other and exchanging information and strategic advice about how to buy or lease the GSA properties.
One was a parcel of land in Montgomery County, on which Abramoff hoped to situate a Jewish high school he supported. The second was the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Abramoff wanted to convert the historic but underused structure into a luxury hotel for an Indian tribe client.
At the same time, Safavian and Abramoff kept in constant social contact -- on the local golf links and at Abramoff's Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, Signatures. Safavian also agreed to attend the junket to St. Andrews in Scotland, the birthplace of golf, which was arranged by Abramoff.
In addition to Volz, Ney and Safavian, the trip, via a chartered Gulfstream II jet, included two Ney aides and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed -- a business associate and longtime friend of Abramoff's.
Before that trip in August 2002, Safavian asked the GSA ethics office whether he could accept the gift of airfare without breaching the agency's ethics code. 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, an amount that Safavian contended throughout the trial was enough to cover the entire cost of the trip.
Zeidenberg and Edmonds derided that assertion. They presented evidence that the check barely paid one-fifth of the real expense: Hotel rooms ran between $400 and $500 a night, greens fees for golf at the fabled St. Andrews were $400 per game, and rounds of drinks in Scotland cost $100 each. Chartering the jet, for nine passengers, cost at least $91,000.