David H. Safavian, the Bush administration official arrested Monday, initially failed to disclose lobbying work he had done for several controversial foreign clients when he went before a Senate panel last year to be confirmed as chief of the White House's federal procurement office.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held up Safavian's nomination for more than a year, in part because of lawmakers' concerns about lobbying work for two men later accused of links to suspected terrorist organizations, according to committee documents. Safavian did not disclose his firm's representation of the men until questioned in writing by the committee's staff, and initially failed to tell the panel he had registered as a foreign agent for two controversial African regimes.
The Senate panel nevertheless approved him unanimously and the Senate followed suit on Nov. 21, 2004.
Safavian was arrested Monday on charges of lying and obstructing an investigation into former powerhouse lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government. Safavian resigned his government post Friday. Yesterday, his attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Senate approval of Safavian occurred two months after The Washington Post disclosed Safavian's participation in an August 2002 Scotland golf trip with Abramoff. That trip was central to the criminal complaint against Safavian unsealed on Monday.
Yesterday, a spokeswoman for committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the review of Safavian's background had been thorough.
"Based on our extensive review of his qualifications and background, we had no reason to believe that Mr. Safavian had engaged in any wrongdoing," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the committee's senior Democrat at the time of the vote.
The record of Safavian's confirmation shows extensive questioning by the committee staff about his alleged lobbying for local Muslim leader Abdurahman Alamoudi, who in October 2000 made widely publicized comments supporting Hezbollah and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, at a rally in Lafayette Park.
Lobby disclosure forms originally filed by Safavian's firm, Janus-Merritt Strategies, show that it represented Alamoudi, a prominent Muslim activist, until 2001. Alamoudi has since been convicted and imprisoned for accepting money from the Libyan government as part of an alleged plot to assassinate the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Janus-Merritt Strategies changed its lobby disclosure forms in 2001 to indicate that its client was not Alamoudi but Jamal Barzinji. In March 2002, Barzinji was named in a search warrant affidavit filed by a Customs Service official as "the officer or director" of a group of entities in Northern Virginia "controlled by individuals who have shown support for terrorists or terrorist fronts." No charges have been filed against Barzinji, and he has denied any wrongdoing.
Safavian told the committee in an April 16, 2004, letter that he and his firm never did any work for Alamoudi. He said the firm lobbied at Barzinji's request to gain U.S. support to free the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned for six years.
Safavian also told the committee that he had "overlooked" two other clients while preparing his initial submissions for the OMB position. He did not initially mention work as a registered foreign agent for Gabon, a country persistently rated by the United States as having a "poor" human rights record, or his work as a registered foreign agent for Pascal Lissouba, the former president of the Republic of Congo who has been tried in absentia for treason and embezzlement.
Safavian, former chief of staff at the General Services Administration, is charged with three counts of making false statements and obstructing a GSA investigation into his ties with Abramoff. Before joining the government, Safavian worked as a lobbyist with Abramoff, then founded Janus-Merritt Strategies with conservative antitax crusader Grover Norquist.
As a lobbyist, he represented the government of Pakistan on military sales matters and the Islamic Institute in an effort to promote a U.S. postage stamp commemorating Ramadan. With Abramoff, he also represented the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate, to try to block the imposition of minimum wage rules.
In its probe, the Senate committee also raised questions about a potential conflict of interest between Safavian and his wife, Jennifer, the chief counsel for oversight and investigations at the House Committee of Government Reform, which oversees federal procurement policy matters.
Safavian said his wife had pledged to recuse herself from "any matters where the conduct of officials and employees" at the Office of Management and Budget the principal issue, "as well as matters relating specifically to procurement policy, competitive sourcing, or information technology."