Second Trial of Abramoff Golfing Buddy Is Par for the Course

David Safavian, on trial over links both Scottish and Abramoffian.
David Safavian, on trial over links both Scottish and Abramoffian. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two years after his conviction in the Jack Abramoff affair, former Bush administration official David Safavian got a retrial yesterday -- or, as his golfing buddies might call it, a mulligan.

Safavian was assigned a 9 a.m. tee time by the starter, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman. A jury of 16 spectators filled the gallery at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse and Country Club. Prosecutors and defense lawyers lined up their shots, and teed off on one another.

"On the evening of August 3, 2002, nine people boarded a plane for Scotland," prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds began, to enjoy the "world-famous golf courses, Scotch and cigars." The defendant, the government charged, "got on that luxury plane to go tee off at St. Andrews" with Abramoff at just the time Safavian was helping the superlobbyist win favorable government treatment.

But Dick Sauber, Safavian's attorney, said the government's drive "has fallen short." Abramoff and Safavian "were golfing buddies," Sauber admitted, and Safavian perhaps didn't pay all he should have for the "fancy trip to Scotland." But it didn't matter, the lawyer argued. "Because they were friends for years, David could have gone on the trip for free."

In the jury box, 10 women and six men dutifully kept score. For the next two weeks, they will have prime seats for this, the second playing of the biennial Safavian Open.

For those who missed the first tournament, Safavian, who was chief of staff at the General Services Administration before moving on to the Office of Management and Budget, was convicted in 2006. In June, an appeals court tossed out the conviction, so prosecutors got a new indictment charging Safavian -- the only person in the Abramoff case to opt for a jury trial rather than a plea deal -- with more instances of misleading investigators.

The case is almost entirely about the golf junket Safavian took with two future jailbirds, Abramoff and then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). The trip cost $150,000. The $3,100 Safavian paid for his share fell short, and so the Justice Department has spent what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars to punish Safavian for that shortfall and for his various fibs associated with the trip.

The argument in Courtroom 29 over a six-year-old golf outing made prosecutor and prosecuted alike sound petty -- particularly on a day when the country learned of the monstrous wrongdoing attributed to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Safavian's sad little case serves as a fine final parable of the Bush administration. It's a tale of how the small things -- whether it's fudging the facts about a golf junket or shading the prewar intelligence about Iraq -- can get you in big trouble.

The burly defendant, in a black suit and a shirt with monogrammed cuffs, clutched rosary beads at the defense table. He hugged his wife and family when they took their seats in the front row. The prosecution would have the jury believe that Safavian was a big shot who had "an unprecedented rise, a tremendous rise, in the political world," a notion Sauber countered by telling jurors that Safavian was "raised by a single mom who worked at Ford Motor Company" and that "he went to night law school."

Whatever his place in the social strata, Safavian was clearly more comfortable in his role as defendant the second time around. During a break in the proceedings, he could be heard discussing household pets with his family, his preference for flushing dead fish over more elaborate funerals, and his wife's disapproval of his tendency to buy new goldfish each time one dies.

Even the judge, also in his second Safavian trial, was in high spirits. During his initial instructions to the jury, he offered some travel advice: "Don't go to Scotland."

It was advice Safavian probably now wishes he had heard in 2002. Instead, he took what Edmonds called "an international golfing trip provided by lobbyists" -- just as he was providing "inside information" to help Abramoff buy two GSA properties. Edmonds displayed an itinerary for the jurors and narrated the excesses: rounds on the Old Course, use of the clubhouse at St. Andrews, the Old Course Hotel for "hundreds of dollars a night," a $500-a-night London hotel, shopping at Harrods and a private jet stocked with sushi. "Abramoff was doing his business at GSA just as he and Mr. Safavian were flying off on that jet," Edmonds charged.

Well played, old chap. In the gallery, the jury listened attentively. But now it was the defense's shot, and they had a trickier lie to play.

Sauber tried to argue that Safavian's claim that Abramoff "has no business before GSA" was technically true. He said Safavian "insisted on paying for himself" and had no idea about the true cost of the trip. And Sauber claimed that his client's false statements to the FBI were merely a flunked "memory test." The case, Safavian's lawyer asked jurors to believe, is not "about cigars and Scotch and this fancy trip." It is not "about the fancy accoutrements."

Judging from jurors' weary faces, the defendant's first round in the 2008 Safavian Open, barely two hours old, was already heading toward the high rough.

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