Monday, May 22, 2006

Trial Nears for White House budget official tied to Lobbyist Jack Abramoff

The New York Times
Trial Nears for Ex-Official Tied to Lobbyist

WASHINGTON, May 21 — A former White House budget official is scheduled to go on trial this week, the first defendant to face a jury in the corruption scandal centered on the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The former official, David H. Safavian, is charged with lying about his contacts with Mr. Abramoff and about the circumstances of their 2002 golfing trip to Scotland by private jet.

Federal prosecutors have signaled that Mr. Abramoff, the former Republican lobbyist, is unlikely to testify, which suggests that the Justice Department may fear a grueling cross-examination that would damage the case against Mr. Safavian.

Prosecutors have said they will instead largely rely on e-mail traffic between Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Safavian in trying to convince jurors that Mr. Safavian lied to government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, about his relationship with Mr. Abramoff. Before Mr. Safavian joined the Bush administration, he worked with Mr. Abramoff at a Washington lobbying firm.

Mr. Safavian, who resigned as the director of procurement policies at the White House budget office days before his arrest in September, has said through lawyers that he told the truth to government investigators about Mr. Abramoff, who had sought Mr. Safavian's help about the time of the 2002 golf trip in gathering information on government real estate that Mr. Abramoff wanted to acquire.

Mr. Safavian has said he also told investigators the truth about the trip to the fabled St. Andrews golf course in Scotland, for which he reimbursed Mr. Abramoff $3,100, which prosecutors have said was only a fraction of the true cost. Mr. Safavian is charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements about his ties to Mr. Abramoff.

Mr. Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said the government's case was based on "guilt by association." The Justice Department, she said, "is trying to take Jack Abramoff's state of mind and say that everybody who dealt with him had that same state of mind."

Ms. Van Gelder said in a telephone interview that the defense case had been complicated in recent days by the refusal of some defense witnesses to testify, citing their constitutional rights against self-incrimination. She refused to say if any of them had gone on the 2002 golf trip to Scotland.

Jury selection in the trial in Federal District Court in Washington is scheduled to begin Monday, with opening statements on Wednesday. Lawyers have suggested that the trial should last about a week.

The testimony could be uncomfortable for members of Congress and others who have been closely tied to Mr. Abramoff, especially for Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican whose former chief of staff is expected to testify for the government.

His former chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, pleaded guilty this month to conspiring with Mr. Abramoff to provide illegal gifts to Mr. Ney.

The congressman has not been charged with any crime but is clearly a focus of the Justice Department's investigation. Mr. Ney has denied wrongdoing, saying he was "duped" by Mr. Abramoff, especially about the circumstances of the trip to Scotland. Mr. Ney and Mr. Volz were on the trip, as was Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and a close friend of Mr. Abramoff's.

Mr. Volz's testimony would be sought by the government to bolster its argument that Mr. Safavian tried to mislead F.B.I. agents, Senate investigators and others about the golf trip. The trip took place in August 2002, when Mr. Safavian was the chief of staff to the administrator of the General Services Administration, the logistics agency that serves as the government's real estate manager.

Mr. Safavian sought advance permission to accept Mr. Abramoff's invitation to go to Scotland, saying in an e-mail request to the agency's ethics office that Mr. Abramoff "is a lawyer and lobbyist, but one that has no business before G.S.A. (he does all of his work on Capitol Hill)."

The ethics office approved the trip but reminded Mr. Safavian that under government rules he was barred from accepting gifts from someone who did business with the government.

During the later criminal investigation of Mr. Abramoff, prosecutors seized computer files with the lobbyist's e-mail traffic. It showed he had been in regular contact with Mr. Safavian in the summer of 2002, just as the golf trip was being organized.

Mr. Abramoff wanted Mr. Safavian's help that summer in obtaining information about two large parcels of government properly — the Old Office Building in downtown Washington and a 600-acre site in the Maryland suburbs of the city. Mr. Abramoff hoped to use the Maryland property for a Jewish day school that he had founded and where he had educated his children.

While the real estate deals never took place, the e-mail messages show that Mr. Safavian did help Mr. Abramoff in obtaining the information and asked colleagues at the General Services Administration to arrange an inspection of one of the properties at Mr. Abramoff's request.

In later investigations of Mr. Abramoff by the F.B.I. and the Senate Indian Affairs committee, Mr. Safavian insisted again that Mr. Abramoff had no business before the G.S.A. at the time of the golfing trip — statements that, prosecutors have said, were demonstrably false in light of the e-mail messages about Mr. Abramoff's proposed real estate deals.

Ms. Van Gelder said that Mr. Safavian continued to believe that he had been truthful with investigators, and that the e-mail messages showed that Mr. Abramoff was not doing business with the government because there were never any formal negotiations over the properties. She said neither of the properties was on the market at the time.

She said that "the question is whether asking for information is business" and that, according to her reading of government ethics rules, the answer was clearly no.

She said the government was unfair to try to suggest something nefarious about the relationship between Mr. Safavian and Mr. Abramoff when, in fact, they had been friends for years and close colleagues in the lobbying firm. She said that Mr. Safavian considered Mr. Abramoff "to be a friend and mentor" and that the Scotland visit was "a purely personal trip to play golf with his friend."