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Appeals Court Tosses Safavian Conviction

A former government official convicted of lying about his relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had no obligation to reveal details of that relationship to government ethics officials, an appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the conviction of David Safavian, the former deputy chief of staff at the General Services Administration, for lying to GSA ethics officials about his relationship with Abramoff. The appeals court ruled, in essence, that ethics opinions from government agencies are advisory in nature, and while they can be used as a defense by an employee who seeks an ethics opinion, there is no legal obligation to provide full and accurate information to the ethics officials.

Safavian took a golf trip to Scotland with Abramoff, later telling ethics officials at GSA that Abramoff had no business before the GSA and that he had paid his own way for the trip. His conviction was based on the conclusion that he must have known that the trip cost far more than he paid, and that he was helping Abramoff get information about GSA projects that might be of benefit to Abramoff’s clients.

The appeals court ruled that, “At GSA, as elsewhere in the federal government, the officer or employee making the inquiry may or may not follow the advice of the ethics committee.” While the government argued that by failing to provide complete information Safavian led the GSA ethics panel to issue an opinion that “permitted” him to take the trip, the court found that “it was not up to the GSA ethics officers to permit or forbid; their function was to offer advice. It is not apparent how this voluntary system, replicated throughout the government, imposes a duty on those seeking ethical advice to disclose — in the government’s words — ‘all relevant information’ upon pain of prosecution.”

The appeals court has sent Safavian’s case back to the federal district court for a new trial.

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