Abramoff Associate Found Guilty of Felony Charges
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RAY SUAREZ: At one time, David Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration. He also served as the Bush administration’s top federal procurement officer.
But in May, Safavian became the first person to go on trial for his connections to disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who now awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy to corrupt public officials.
Safavian was accused of lying about a 2002 golf trip to Scotland he took with Abramoff and of trying to misrepresent their professional relationship. This morning, a jury at the federal courthouse in Washington convicted David Safavian on charges of lying and obstruction of justice.
Merely a friendly conversation?
RAY SUAREZ: Sabrina Eaton reported on the trial for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and joins us now.
And we know what the charges were called in the indictment, but what did the government say he did that broke the law?
SABRINA EATON, Cleveland Plain Dealer: Well, the government produced a whole stream of e-mails, hundreds and hundreds of them, between him and Abramoff, in which Abramoff was asking for details of properties that the General Services Administration controls.
The General Services Administration, where Safavian worked, is basically the federal government's landlord and controls all federal properties. Abramoff was interested in getting a property in Silver Spring, Maryland, for use for a school that he operated.
He also wanted access to a building in downtown Washington. That's a big scenic building on Pennsylvania Avenue that a lot of people might be familiar with called the Old Post Office Building. There's a big food court in there, and it can be a bit of a tourist area. He had wanted to develop that into a hotel with one of the Indian tribes he operated for.
RAY SUAREZ: And David Safavian said that he hadn't been doing business with Jack Abramoff?
SABRINA EATON: David Safavian was pretty much parsing out the concept of doing business. He had interpreted what he was doing, as he told the jury, as just answering a friend's questions.
He said that, if Abramoff was actually doing business with the federal government, that would have entailed applying for a federal contracting license and that he wasn't actually doing business until he got that license and submitted an official bid. So he was kind of, you know, getting all technical with the terms.
RAY SUAREZ: So Safavian puts before the jury his story that he was just talking to a friend.
SABRINA EATON: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: The government puts its e-mails showing detailed conversations about these two particular properties, and the jury sides with the government?
SABRINA EATON: Correct.
Tee-ing off against Safavian
RAY SUAREZ: So, when you look at the counts, it seems like the government threw the book at David Safavian as much for lying about the nature of their relationship as an underlying crime or a corrupt relationship with Jack Abramoff?
SABRINA EATON: I'd say that's about right.
RAY SUAREZ: So that comes from when they tried to speak to him about it and tried to quiz him about the nature?
SABRINA EATON: Well, one of the things that was involved here was Safavian went on a golf trip to Scotland with Abramoff. And when he did that, he asked for the General Services Administration's permission to do so. He got an ethics opinion.
And the ethics officer wrote in this ethics opinion that Abramoff had no business before his agency. And he had told him that Abramoff had no business before his agency.
The ethics report also said that Abramoff's lobbying firm had no business before the agency, and Safavian told the jury that he had no idea where they got that, because Abramoff worked for a very large lobbying firm and presumably they had some business before the GSA, which is a very large federal entity.
RAY SUAREZ: His golf trip ends up being a big part of the case, doesn't it?
SABRINA EATON: This golf trip is just a big part of a lot of the stuff that's associated with Abramoff and with the folks in Ohio who I cover on a routine basis, so...
RAY SUAREZ: What was that trip like? And what was David Safavian trying to explain about how he went and where he went?
SABRINA EATON: Well, for Safavian, the golf trip was supposed to be purely recreational. Safavian and Abramoff were both big golfers, and I guess that, if you were a golfer, Scotland is kind of the big Mecca of golfdom. So it seemed like it was like an all-star tour of fancy golf courses.
And they went to -- it was like about four or five days of golfing, and then they went to London. And these golf courses were described as places, you know, where the greens fees were hundreds of dollars and the tips to the caddies were like $100-plus, things like that.
So it was -- also, there were a lot of very lavish-sounding dinners and things like that. There was a description of a lot of drinking, golfing and smoking Cuban cigars that went on.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, David Safavian says, look, there's nothing corrupt about this because I paid for my trip.
SABRINA EATON: Correct. He gave about -- I think it was a $3,100 check, but the federal government produced evidence that the private jet alone cost more than $90,000, and there was a lot of talk about the hotel rooms. And I guess the hotel rooms at some of these places were about $500-a-night hotels.
Safavian said that, you know, he didn't know how much the hotels cost and thought that they were about, you know, equal in quality with some of the places he stayed on federal travel, you know, where there's a limit on the amount of money that they can spend for a hotel room. So he argued that these places were about the same quality.
Fallout for Ney
RAY SUAREZ: Now, as a Plain Dealer reporter, I guess this golf tournament is significant because Bob Ney and aides were along, as well.
SABRINA EATON: Yes, two of his aides, as well as one of Bob Ney's former aides, a guy who eventually went to work for Abramoff named Neil Volz. He was on that trip, too.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, if a jury found David Safavian guilty today, what does that mean for Representative Bob Ney?
SABRINA EATON: Well, Safavian and Ney are in somewhat different situations. I mean, Safavian was accused of lying to these federal investigators, and that was what he was on trial for.
However, the e-mails that were introduced in this case, there's a lot of e-mails that Abramoff sent about Ney. And we don't know what e-mails Ney may have sent to Abramoff because that hasn't become part of the public record yet.
Additionally, Volz was one of the star witnesses against Safavian. And if the government decides to press any charges against Ney, Neil Volz seems like he would be a likely person to testify against Ney, too. And, obviously, the jury determined that Volz was a credible enough witness that, you know, they did find Safavian guilty.
RAY SUAREZ: And for his part, the Ohio congressman says he's done nothing wrong?
SABRINA EATON: Exactly. He insists that all this stuff -- I mean, he did go on the golf trip with Abramoff, and he did do a few things on Abramoff's behalf. But he says the reason he did those things, there was no quid pro quo, he says. He says that the reason he did those things was because he thought that they were smart policy decisions.
RAY SUAREZ: How is Tom DeLay's case affected, if at all, bythis latest conviction, coming after guilty pleas in other cases and peopleturning government evidence?
SABRINA EATON: Well, Tom DeLay is kind of no longer inCongress, and so I think he's somewhat, you know, off us political recorders'radar screen at the moment. But, you know, it can't be really good for anybodywho's stuck in the whole -- who's part of this whole Abramoff investigation.
RAY SUAREZ: And Jack Abramoff is still awaiting trial onfurther charges himself, is he not?
SABRINA EATON: No, he actually has pleaded guilty in everycase in which he's been charged, and so he's kind of hanging out there. And hesays that he's willing to cooperate as a witness in any of these cases, andpresumably he's feeding prosecutors information.
RAY SUAREZ: Free pending sentencing?
SABRINA EATON: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Sabrina Eaton, thanks a lot.
SABRINA EATON: Thank you.