Jury Decision Likely This Week in 2nd Safavian Trial

Posted December 15, 2008 at 8:32am

By the end of this week a federal jury will likely decide — for the second time — whether a former White House official broke the law by trying to hide his relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The government is expected to rest its case today in the retrial of David Safavian, a former official at the General Services Administration and later the Office of Management and Budget.

Safavian traveled to Scotland with Abramoff and others on a lavish golfing vacation in August 2002. Safavian paid $3,100 to cover the cost of the trip, but the government alleges that the true cost was far more than that — closer to $15,000 — and that Safavian knew he was not paying the full cost.

The Justice Department has charged 15 people with crimes related to Abramoff, but Safavian is the only one who has gone to trial. He was convicted in 2006 of lying to ethics officials about his relationship with Abramoff, but an appeals court overturned that conviction in June on the grounds that Safavian had no legal obligation to provide complete information to GSA ethics officials when he voluntarily sought an opinion on whether he could accept the golf trip as a gift.

At the time of the trip, Safavian was the chief of staff at GSA and had been helping Abramoff explore the possibility of obtaining two GSA-controlled properties for his clients, but Safavian told investigators at the time that Abramoff had no business before GSA. He contends that was technically true because Abramoff did not have — and never received — a contract with GSA.

The Scottish golf trip has been at the center of several cases the Justice Department has brought against Abramoff co-conspirators, including former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who spent about 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges for his involvement with Abramoff.

In the retrial, which began last week, Safavian is charged with lying on his financial disclosure form by failing to disclose the unpaid portion of his travel with Abramoff as a gift, and lying to investigators at GSA, the FBI and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who investigated the trip afterward.

During opening arguments last week, prosecutors alleged that Safavian repeatedly “lied, denied and misled” to prevent investigators from getting to the bottom of his dealings with Abramoff.

Defense attorneys argued that Safavian paid what he believed was his fair share for the golf trip, and that since Abramoff had no contracts with GSA, it was reasonable for Safavian to say the lobbyist “had no business before GSA.”

Last week the judge also ordered the government to turn over to the defense several excerpts of Abramoff’s interviews with FBI agents in which the lobbyist indicated that Safavian generally declined to accept free meals and other gifts, and insisted on paying his own way to Scotland. These materials were not provided to Safavian’s lawyers for his first trial.

The government is expected to call a final witness today, and Safavian’s lawyers have suggested they will call fewer than half a dozen witnesses, meaning the jury is likely to begin its deliberations by mid-week.

In October, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was found guilty in the same courthouse of failing to report gifts on his annual disclosure forms.

After the Safavian jury was dismissed on Friday, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman admitted to the lawyers and courtroom spectators that every year he receives a letter from reviewers asking him to fix errors he has made on his own annual financial disclosure forms.