Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ex-Bush official hid ties to Abramoff, US says

Ex-Bush official hid ties to Abramoff, US says
By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors said on Wednesday that a former Bush administration official lied to investigators and hid his ties to Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of an influence-peddling scandal.

In opening statements at the first trial in connection with the Abramoff scandal, prosecutors tried to paint David Safavian as a liar while his lawyer denied the charges and accused the government of basing its case on "guilt by association."

Justice Department lawyer Peter Zeidenberg said Safavian took advantage of his position to help his friend, a former top Washington lobbyist with strong ties to leaders in Congress, particularly in the Republican Party.

"He worked first and foremost to further the interest of one particular individual -- a rich and powerful lobbyist and personal friend of the defendant, Jack Abramoff," Zeidenberg told 12 jurors and two alternates.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud charges and is cooperating with prosecutors in a corruption probe that could implicate more officials and lawmakers.

Tom DeLay, the former Republican House leader and once one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, decided to resign his seat after becoming embroiled in the Abramoff scandal. Two of his former aides and a former aide to Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in the investigation of a conspiracy to bribe members of Congress in return for legislative favors.

Safavian, the former chief of staff at the General Services Administration (GSA) -- the property managing agency for the federal government -- has been charged with lying and obstructing investigations into his relationship with Abramoff and their 2002 golf outing to Scotland funded by the lobbyist.

A political appointee at the GSA from May 2002 to January 2004 who later worked at the White House budget office, Safavian is the first government official to be indicted in a case related to the Abramoff scandal.

During the trial, which is set to last about one week, prosecutors will present evidence from hundreds of e-mails between Abramoff and Safavian to prove that Safavian lied to investigators about his involvement in and knowledge of Abramoff's efforts to do business with the GSA.

"We're going to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt, relying mainly on the defendant's own words," said Zeidenberg.


Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said her client did not pass on any unauthorized information. She accused the government of "stretching the facts to fit Mr. Safavian into a web of corruption."

"David Safavian was not in Jack Abramoff's pocket. But he was his friend and he answered his questions. And the answers he gave were publicly available to anyone," she said.

Zeidenberg said Safavian concealed the fact that Abramoff had expressed interest in GSA properties at the time of their golf trip and that he had helped the lobbyist in his attempts to do business with the GSA.

He also said Safavian improperly forwarded Abramoff internal GSA e-mails and also helped draft letters addressed to GSA officials about the properties he was interested in.

Van Gelder said discussions between the men about GSA properties did not rise to the level of "doing business."

She also said Safavian did not conceal anything, since he told ethics officials at the GSA about the trip and paid Abramoff $3,100 to cover his hotel and golf fees.

Prosecutors say the trip was much more expensive than that because Abramoff chartered a jet to fly the group to Scotland and on to London.