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The trial of former General Services Administration official David Safavian began in Washington last week. Safavian, 38, is charged with five counts of making false statements and obstruction of justice. The government is attempting to show that Safavian lied about lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s business relationship with the agency when Safavian asked for permission to attend a golfing junket to Scotland in August 2002. Prosecutors allege Safavian helped Abramoff in his attempt to lease two GSA properties, one in White Oak, Md., and the other in the Old Post Office Building. The defense maintains there was nothing illegal about this friendship. Here is one observer’s take on the proceedings: WHITE NOISE. The issues at stake in the Safavian trial are reminiscent of old-school notions of Washington’s backroom culture. But they are unfolding in a 21st-century environment, specifically the state-of-the-art courtroom in the U.S. District Court building. Along that line, every time Justice Department lawyers and Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, were called to the bench, an irritating gurgle sounded overhead. The culprit: a white-noise machine designed to keep the jury from overhearing sidebars with Judge Paul Friedman. And those conferences happened more than a few times. Although the parties had spent countless hours before the trial negotiating precisely how the incriminating e-mails sent between Safavian and Abramoff would be used, Van Gelder wasn’t reserved about continuing to object to their use. “Didn’t we just discuss this?” Friedman once remarked. A SIGNATURE STYLE. GSA Administrator Steven Perry was Safavian’s boss during the golfing trip at issue. Perry testified that he didn’t know that Abramoff was a practicing lobbyist at the time his chief of staff, Safavian, journeyed with him to Scotland. But that didn’t change the fact that Perry had no interest in such lavish travel. He turned down an offer to join the crew because he felt it was not “how one should conduct oneself when in a public position.” Whatever Perry’s ethical divergence, he didn’t let that color his opinion of Safavian, whom he considered a “good worker who liked being a public servant.” And Perry remained a patron of Abramoff’s now-shuttered restaurant, Signatures, where Perry first met Abramoff at a going-away party for the outgoing chief of staff whom Safavian replaced. Perry returned to the restaurant about a half-dozen times over the following year with his wife. His patronage did not go unnoticed. When he was dining once with some guests, a waiter came up to their table to say the meal was “compliments of Mr. Abramoff.” Though the outing was not business, Perry declined the gesture. “I felt I should not,” he told the jury. COSTA’S CROSS. When Van Gelder cross-examined Anthony Costa, a 22-year GSA veteran in charge of the properties that Abramoff sought to lease, she took a page from the standard defense attorney playbook and tried to cast doubt on his testimony, including suggesting that much of the information that Safavian gave Abramoff was already public. But what Van Gelder succeeded in most was getting the fisheye from Costa. “You keep looking at me like you think I’m going to trick you,” she told him. “I’m not trying to trick you.” Costa was a popular witness, but it had little to do with his testimony. Friedman and others seemed to relish having an official from the GSA, which serves as landlord to the federal judiciary and the Justice Department, in the hot seat. On Wednesday, as Costa was returning to the stand from a short break, Friedman turned to him: “I was asking whether, while he was here, I should ask him about the rent we pay to GSA or leave that to the chief justice.” “It’s very fair,” Costa replied. After the jury departed Thursday, Friedman joked with counsel about his access to Costa. Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg added that he’d had a chance to voice some complaints about the DOJ buildings, as well. “I’m objecting to this lobbying,” Van Gelder interrupted, in much the same fashion as she had during regular testimony. Friedman fired back that she too had asked Costa for help. That, Van Gelder said, was different: “Every woman here knows the problem with the women’s bathrooms.” The ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. The most discussed man in the trial, Abramoff, isn’t expected to make an appearance on behalf of either side. Prosecutors won’t comment on their decision not to call Abramoff (who has cut a deal with the government to provide testimony in its ongoing probe) as a witness. But experts say the government probably fears he would take a beating during cross-examination. Instead prosecutors are using e-mails and financial documents to detail the relationship between Abramoff and Safavian. A new tidbit: Credit-card records show that most of the attendees of the 2002 Scotland trip flew home on commercial airlines. That means, prosecutor Zeidenberg noted, only Abramoff, his son, and Safavian flew back on a charter jet. Abramoff wasn’t the only one who was conspicuous in his absence from the witness stand. Another was Paul Vinovich, a staffer for Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) who also went on the trip to Scotland — and who, prosecutors say, would take the Fifth Amendment if called. His name came up when Zeidenberg was trying to admit evidence to prove that Safavian’s share of the seven-day trip was far more than the $3,100 he paid Abramoff. Zeidenberg’s hope was to bring in American Express records from Abramoff and Vinovich to show that the total tab was $149,286. But Abramoff’s absence is already causing some headaches for prosecutors. Friday, Zeidenberg tried again to introduce the credit-card records, which he said included the cost of the stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London. But Friedman wasn’t sure the records clearly showed what was purchased. And so he threatened to exclude them if the prosecution didn’t call a witness. Van Gelder smelled a trap. She doesn’t want to call Abramoff either and preferred to have the records excluded. “It’s a question of whether they are trying to sandbag me so that I have to call Mr. Abramoff,” she said. Friedman said the documents would be barred unless the government brought someone in to validate them. And quickly. “You can bring someone in from the Mandarin hotel,” he said. “You have three days to fly someone over.” (Note to American taxpayers: A one-day round-trip ticket from London to D.C. for May 30 was going for a cool $1,726 Friday afternoon, with a layover in, uh, Newark.) A LITTLE HELP. On Thursday FBI Special Agent Jeff Reising took the stand. He spent most of his three hours of testimony hunched over a thick black binder, reading through e-mail after e-mail from Safavian, Abramoff, and others in a tone resembling a voice mail messaging system. Even Friedman had trouble bearing the repetition. “If we have another morning like this afternoon, we’ll have espresso for you,” he told the jury after Reising was dismissed for the day. But Reising may have inadvertently helped Safavian’s case. On cross-examination Friday, he testified that a year ago he visited Safavian in his office at the Office of Management and Budget, where Safavian had gone after his GSA stint, to ask him about the Scotland trip. During the conversation, Safavian furnished a copy of an ethics opinion that gave him the go-ahead for the trip. He also told Reising that Abramoff had been interested in two GSA properties that he had helped him with. But he told the agent the requests had come “significantly well after the Scotland trip,” in late 2002 or early ’03. The e-mails between the two suggest that Abramoff’s overtures came much earlier. But Reising testified that he never gave Safavian, who is accused of obstructing justice, a chance to explain the contradiction. DELAYED GRATIFICATION. But that wasn’t exactly what the media were waiting around for. Without the promise of an Abramoff sighting, the main event was expected to be former Ney staffer Neil Volz, who has also cut a deal with prosecutors. Volz was first expected to testify Thursday. Then it became Friday. But as Friday dragged on, the three-day weekend loomed, and it became clear that Volz was being kicked to next week. “I think that’s all we’ll get to for those who came for other proceedings,” Friedman said late Friday afternoon. Volz promptly left the courthouse.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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