By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006
A federal judge yesterday sentenced David H. Safavian, a former top Bush administration official, to 18 months in prison for lying and concealing unethical dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
During an unusual hearing that lasted much of the day, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman wrestled with how to mete out justice to Safavian. He said Safavian was a man who had "pulled himself up by his bootstraps" and had been "a very good person to a lot of people." But, the judge said, Safavian also committed "an abuse of the public trust" in his relationship with the lobbyist.
"Did he believe in public service? I guess he did," Friedman said. "But he also wanted someday to join Mr. Abramoff in that lucrative lobbying business."
Friedman lamented that Washington has become "more and more corrupt," increasingly a home to greedy lobbyists and politicians on the take.
Safavian, 39, a former chief of staff for the General Services Administration, wept as he told Friedman that he knows now he never should have given Abramoff inside information about government-owned real estate that the lobbyist wanted to acquire. At the time, Safavian said, he thought what he was doing was innocuous. "I didn't see anything wrong in helping Jack," he said.
The 18-month jail sentence was about halfway between the 30 to 36 months sought by government prosecutors and the defense's proposal for alternative sentencing that would avoid any prison time at all.
Barbara Van Gelder, Safavian's attorney, urged leniency, telling Friedman that Safavian exhibited an ethical "blind spot" in his dealings with the brazen and flashy Abramoff. "He may have been blinded, dazzled," she said, but his wrongdoing with Abramoff was "isolated, not a man beginning a life of crime."
But prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg asked the judge to add a perjury conviction to Safavian's crimes for his testimony at trial. "For the two days he spent on the witness stand, Mr. Safavian lied about virtually everything," Zeidenberg said. "He testified under oath that he never lied, never concealed. . . . He even went on to say, 'I never gave Jack Abramoff favorable treatment,' " statements the jury rejected in its verdict.
Friedman said he did find some of Safavian's statements from the witness stand "incredible," including the defendant's claim that he believed his payment of $3,100 would cover the cost of a week-long luxury golfing excursion to Scotland with Abramoff. But in the end, the judge decided against the prosecutor's request for a perjury conviction.
Safavian was a lobbyist and congressional aide until 2002, when he joined the GSA, the agency that oversees the purchase and leasing of billions of dollars in federal property around the country. He later became the government's top procurement officer at the Office of Management and Budget.
He was convicted in June of concealing facts about the 2002 golf trip as well as the help he gave to Abramoff, a longtime friend, in trying to acquire two GSA-controlled properties -- one of them the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The jury found him guilty of lying to the GSA inspector general and obstructing an inquiry by that office, as well as lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and to a GSA ethics officer.
Trial evidence included stacks of e-mails showing that Safavian secretly maneuvered within the GSA to obtain information for Abramoff about properties he wanted to buy or lease. The two schemed to get members of Congress to pressure the agency for the information.
Friedman said he had received 50 to 60 letters from people attesting to Safavian's good qualities, including one from his former boss Clay Johnson, the OMB's deputy director for management, from friends on Capitol Hill and from his pastor. A letter also came from his sister, who testified tearfully on his behalf yesterday. Her brother, she said, "didn't tell anyone" he was in trouble until his arrest. "He called me at work, sobbing and sobbing. He said, 'I'm so sorry for embarrassing you,' " Mehnaz Safavian said.
Safavian's lawyers said their client will appeal the conviction. Safavian is one of eight people convicted so far in the wide-ranging influence-peddling investigation into Abramoff's lobbying activities on Capitol Hill and in executive branch agencies. Earlier this month, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) became the first lawmaker to plead guilty in the probe. Abramoff and several former congressional aides have pleaded guilty and are cooperating.
One of them, Neil G. Volz, a former Ney aide, went to work with Abramoff, went on the Scotland golf trip and was a central witness in the Safavian trial. Friedman said he was revolted by Volz's testimony that government officials prepared sworn declarations about lobbyist-paid trips based on what "would pass the smell test" -- not what was true. "I wanted to go home and take a shower," the judge said.