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Lavish breakfast meetings. Weekday golf excursions. Tickets to big-name sporting events. Plush junkets to foreign lands. Jack Abramoff made it all happen for David Safavian. Safavian, a former top government procurement official, long cultivated a relationship with his former boss Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in a federal corruption probe earlier this year. Those who know Safavian say he sought to emulate Abramoff’s successes, both financially and within Republican political circles. His admiration was so deep, former colleagues say, that it verged on hero worship. Now as Safavian, 38, prepares for trial next week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on charges of lying to investigators and obstructing justice, that friendship could lead to his ruin. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines. Safavian first came under scrutiny in 2003 while working as chief of staff at the General Services Administration. An anonymous tipster called a GSA hotline to question the propriety of Safavian’s seven-day, Abramoff-sponsored golfing trip to Scotland in August 2002. (Trip attendees included Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and former Christian Coalition organizer Ralph Reed.) Initially, a GSA inquiry found no wrongdoing after Safavian assured investigators that Abramoff didn’t have any business before the agency and furnished a copy of a $3,100 payment he said reimbursed Abramoff for the trip. As recently as spring 2005, Safavian seemed to be in the clear after he was promoted to the Office of Management and Budget, where he became the chief administrator for federal procurement policy. But as the government’s probe into Abramoff’s dealings widened, Safavian caught the attention of Department of Justice investigators. In September, Safavian was charged with five counts of lying and obstructing justice, both in the GSA investigation of the Scotland trip and then in discussions with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which was reviewing Abramoff’s lobbying for Indian tribes. Safavian is also charged with lying about Abramoff’s business dealings before the GSA when he initially sought approval from an ethics officer to go to Scotland. The prosecution plans to show that Safavian lied because he knew his relationship with Abramoff “would not bear close scrutiny” and that a deeper examination “would uncover a long history of illegal or, at the very least, highly unethical conduct,” according to a government court filing. To prove the point, the prosecution has released hundreds of e-mails that detail contacts among Abramoff, Safavian, and other associates. Safavian is the first government official indicted in the Abramoff scandal and also the first person put on trial for Abramoff-related lobbying corruption. As such, his prosecution is seen as a significant test for the investigation, which is being led by department lawyers Peter Zeidenberg and Nathaniel Edmonds. The five others charged in the probe so far — Abramoff; his SunCruz Casino partner, Adam Kidan; and fellow lobbyists Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy, and Neil Volz — have all pleaded guilty. “I don’t think there is any mystery that the government would like [Safavian's] cooperation and he doesn’t want to,” says Michele Roberts, a white-collar defense lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who is not involved in the case. “There may be some other congressmen that they think Safavian can help deliver.” Prosecutors plan to introduce evidence showing that the actual cost of the Scotland trip was more than three times the $3,100 Safavian paid. Such testimony could implicate others on the trip, particularly Ney, who reported his costs at $3,200, according to House records. The prosecution also intends to link Safavian to the disclosure of confidential government information. According to the prosecution’s court filings, Safavian gave Abramoff early warning that the GSA was about to bar four subsidiaries of Tyco International Ltd. (a big Abramoff client) from doing business with the government. Abramoff forwarded that information to the company’s general counsel, Timothy Flanigan. (Tyco later avoided the sanction because it had replaced its top management.) But Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder of Wiley Rein & Fielding, denies there was anything improper about her client’s relationship with Abramoff. She argues that Safavian didn’t lie to government officials because none of the alleged business Abramoff was looking to secure was yet under formal consideration by the agency. And even though Abramoff treated Safavian to sporting events and meals, Van Gelder says the exchange was part of their mutual friendship: “It’s not like the other cases. There is no game. There is no wife getting a job. There is no money in his pocket. He thought he did everything by the book, and now they’re throwing the book at him.” A BAND OF MERRY MEN Raised in Pontiac, Mich., Safavian, who is of Iranian descent, moved to Washington in 1988 just after graduating from St. Louis University, a midsize Jesuit school. His conservative Michigan ties got him onto the ground floor of Capitol Hill, where he worked for former Michigan Republican Reps. Robert Davis and Bill Schuette.
TIMELINE OF A RELATIONSHIP
David Safavian is the first government official charged in connection with the federal probe of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying. He is also the first to go to trial. Below is a timeline of key dates in the prosecution’s case.
DATE EVENT
May 2002 Safavian takes post as deputy chief of staff at the General Services Administration from the office of Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah).
May 24, 2002 Abramoff first contacts Safavian about finding a building for his Jewish day school, the Eshkol Academy.
June 19, 2002 Abramoff reaches out to Safavian about receiving a copy of the solicitation to redevelop the Old Post Office as a luxury hotel.
July 11, 2002 Safavian is promoted to chief of staff at the General Services Administration, the No. 3 position in the agency.
July 25, 2002 Safavian e-mails the GSA’s general counsel for permission to go to Scotland with Abramoff, whom he says has no business at the GSA.
Aug. 3-9, 2002 Safavian attends Abramoff-sponsored junket to Scotland and London. Attendees include Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).
March 2003 Anonymous tipster calls the GSA, raising ethical questions about Safavian’s trip, but an internal probe finds no wrongdoing.
November 2004 Safavian is promoted to the Office of Management and Budget, where he becomes the chief of federal procurement policy.
Feb./March 2005 Senate Indian Affairs Committee questions Safavian about his Scotland trip. He assures committee he had the GSA’s approval.
Sept. 16, 2005 Safavian resigns from his post at the OMB amid questions over his relationship with Abramoff.
Sept. 19, 2005 Safavian is arrested at his home in Alexandria. He is later charged with five counts of false statements and obstruction of justice.

He returned home to go to Michigan State University’s Detroit College of Law. But Safavian was anxious to get back to Washington. After a judicial clerkship he took a job as a senior tax analyst in KPMG‘s D.C. office, but tax planning wasn’t exactly on the political track Safavian had in mind. So two years later, he jumped to Preston Gates as an associate in the Seattle-based firm’s public policy practice. It was there that he first worked under Abramoff, then Preston Gates’ top Republican rainmaker. Through Abramoff, Safavian learned the trade of lobbying, working for clients such as the Northern Marianas Islands and the Chitimacha Indian tribe of Louisiana. But Preston Gates’ style was too policy-oriented to suit Safavian (or Abramoff, for that matter), former colleagues say. So in 1997, Safavian joined with GOP power broker Grover Norquist and Republican lobbyists Bethany Noble and Scott Hoffman to open the Merritt Group, which they envisioned as an ideologically driven shop. “We’re not letting people who offer us money change our principles,” Safavian told Legal Times in 1997 about the firm, which merged with Republican lobbyists Daniel Walsh and Mark Robertson’s firm, Janus Strategies, in 1998. For the next two years, Safavian worked hard to expand Janus-Merritt. “Dave was the first one in the office and the last one to leave. He was always thinking about his next move,” says a former colleague. “He was a very ambitious guy.” But despite Safavian’s efforts, the firm remained somewhat second-tier, representing controversial foreign clients, including the Republic of Congo and the government of Gabon. He also came under fire for his alleged representation of Abdurahman Alamoudi, a Muslim activist later arrested for conspiring to assassinate the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. (Safavian denies he was ever a client.) But perhaps more disturbing to Safavian than his firm’s financial struggles was his modest standing in Republican political circles. He often relied on the contacts of his wife, Jennifer, now chief counsel on the House Government Reform Committee, to service clients. Eager to burnish his own credentials, Safavian started fund raising for Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), which helped land him a position as the congressman’s chief of staff in 2001. While Safavian was in Cannon’s office, the representative pushed telecom issues and anti-gambling legislation that favored Janus-Merritt clients such as Covad Communications and the Interactive Gaming Council. The congressman also issued a press release praising Covad’s lower Internet costs. A Cannon spokesperson says the congressman supported those issues on their merits. A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY By early 2002, Safavian was on the hunt for another move up the career ladder. Not surprisingly, he turned to Abramoff, then near the apex of his power in Washington. In April, Abramoff landed Safavian an interview with Fred Baggett, head of Greenberg Traurig‘s government relations practice. “Let me know what I need to do to make this move forward,” Abramoff e-mailed Safavian after the interview. But by then, Safavian was already considering another offer: GSA asked him to become chief of staff, a position in which he would help oversee operations for one of the government’s biggest bureaucracies. It was the kind of high-profile political appointment Safavian had longed for, won in part through his years of work in Republican circles. The position offered him a chance to remake GSA’s image, which had been tarnished by a kickback scheme between Air Force procurement officer Darleen Druyun and the Boeing Co. But even as he took the GSA job, Safavian told Abramoff that one day he hoped to join up with him and his “band of merry men” at Greenberg. If there were any hard feelings on Abramoff’s part for the rejection, it didn’t show. Instead, Abramoff wasted little time trying to capitalize on his new connection at the GSA. On May 24, Abramoff e-mailed Safavian about a GSA project for which he needed help. Abramoff was seeking a new home for Eshkol Academy, a Jewish day school he helped launch. He had heard about some open space at the former White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center in Silver Spring, Md. “I was wondering if it is possible [sic] get some of that property for a school. Do you know if that is doable and how?” Abramoff wrote Safavian at his personal e-mail address. (He often made his business requests through Safavian’s personal e-mail address.) Soon after, Abramoff inquired about another project: a GSA plan to redevelop the Old Post Office, a historic landmark located at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, into a luxury hotel. The development played into the interests of Washington-area developer Norman Groh, who used Greenberg Traurig attorney Jeffry Dwyer on real estate deals. When the GSA opened the project for bidding, in 2001, Groh asked Dwyer to help. To gain an inside track on acquiring the building, Dwyer connected Groh with Abramoff, who brought one of his Indian tribal clients, the Chitimacha, on board. Because the government offers no-bid contracts to small businesses run by Indian tribes, Groh and Abramoff hoped that a partnership between the developer and the Chitimacha would trump the competition. By this juncture, Abramoff viewed Safavian as a key member of his lobbying circle. Indeed, just a month after Safavian took the post, Abramoff included him on a list of attendees for the 2002 Scotland golfing junket. In a June 15, 2002, e-mail exchange between Abramoff and his then-Greenberg associate Tony Rudy, Rudy asked Abramoff what purpose inviting Safavian served. Abramoff replied: “Total business angle. He is new COS of GSA.” Safavian tried to return Abramoff’s favors. On July 11, for instance, he invited Abramoff to a party for the outgoing chief of staff at GSA. “This would be a great opportunity to connect you with [GSA] Administrator Perry,” Safavian wrote. Meanwhile, Safavian continued to work on Abramoff’s behalf on the hotel conversion and Eshkol Academy lease. On the school project, according to a July 21 e-mail from Abramoff to his associate Neil Volz, Safavian even suggested a key strategy to win the lease from the government. “He said that the quickest way to get this done is to slip something into a moving bill, which directs the GSA to transfer the property to the school, or even better to lease it to the school for long term,” Abramoff told Volz. Also, while still at the GSA, Safavian directly advised Abramoff on how to lobby his office, going so far as to edit letters Abramoff’s team had prepared for Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) to send to GSA endorsing the Old Post Office project. “Make sure I get a copy directly (as well as thru the normal mail process) so I can begin to lay the groundwork as soon as possible,” Safavian wrote Abramoff on July 22. Three days later, Safavian e-mailed GSA’s then-general counsel, Raymond McKenna, asking for permission to go on Abramoff’s golfing junket to Scotland — approval McKenna gave on an assurance that Abramoff had no business before the agency. Despite that assurance, just days before Safavian departed, he arranged a meeting between Eshkol school administrators and GSA officials. Abramoff’s wife, Pam, attended, but Abramoff did not, hoping to obscure his involvement in the project because of his “high profile politically.” While on the trip, Abramoff plied Safavian with lavish meals and rounds of golf at St. Andrews and secured a commitment of support from Safavian on the post office building conversion bid. “He wants us to push hard on this project and he thinks we can get it,” Abramoff wrote to Jon Van Horne, a fellow Greenberg lawyer, after the trip. Despite such pledges of assistance, the post office building project never came to fruition. The Eshkol school lease also ran into trouble. The space wasn’t open and, Van Horne says, was also contaminated. Still, Safavian continued his friendship with Abramoff, advising him on other projects. When the probe into Abramoff’s lobbying began, Safavian reiterated his support. Just hours after The Washington Post‘s first piece came out, on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2004, Safavian fired off an e-mail to Abramoff with a simple message: “Let me know if there is anything [sic] I can do to help with�Damage control.” But the damage to both men was already done.


Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected]. Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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