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Former White House official David Safavian was found guilty Tuesday of obstructing justice and lying to federal investigators about his relationship with ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The verdict gives a boost to the government’s ongoing probe into the dealings of the one-time Washington power broker. A federal jury found Safavian, who served as chief procurement officer at the Office of Management and Budget until last September, guilty on three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing justice. The jury acquitted him on a second count of obstructing justice in connection with an investigation of Abramoff conducted by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Safavian faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced this fall. The case was a significant victory for the government’s expanding public corruption probe. Safavian’s was the first, and so far only, Abramoff-related case to make it to trial. Four other targets — Abramoff and his associates Michael Scanlon, Neil Volz, and Tony Rudy — agreed to plead guilty to a variety of charges, including conspiracy to bribe public officials. “The message of this verdict is clear: In answering questions posed by Congress and by federal agencies, public officials have the same obligation as does the public which they serve — to tell the truth. No one is above the law,” said Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, in a statement released by the Justice Department. Safavian’s case was somewhat narrower than those of others targeted in the Abramoff probe. It focused on an August 2002 trip Safavian took to Scotland and London that Abramoff sponsored. Others on the junket included Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney and political strategist Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. Attendees played rounds of golf at the Old Course of St. Andrews and stayed at luxury hotels in London and Scotland. At the time of the trip, Safavian had just been appointed chief of staff to the administrator of the Government Services Administration. But when asking for clearance to go on the trip, Safavian told a GSA ethics officer that Abramoff had no business before the agency because he did all of his work on Capitol Hill. In fact, Abramoff had previously sought assistance from Safavian to secure leases on two GSA-controlled properties.
• Surprise Witness: Safavian Takes Stand in His Trial (June 5, 2006)• A Little Action and a Lot of White Noise (May 29, 2006)• Enemy Mine: Safavian’s Wife Hires Former Foe (May 22, 2006)• Captured By The Game (May 15, 2006)

During the trial prosecutors disclosed hundreds of e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff that detailed extensive consultations between the two. Safavian actively advised Abramoff, an old friend, on the best way to proceed with his two GSA-related projects. One of those projects involved using a government facility in Silver Spring, Md., to house a Jewish day school Abramoff had helped found. The other project was a bid for the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington, which an Abramoff client wanted to convert into an upscale hotel. Neither proposal ever got off the ground. Prosecutors argued that even though Safavian paid Abramoff $3,100 to cover the cost of the Scotland trip, which included multiple rounds of golf and expensive dinners, he should have known that the actual cost was far higher. Safavian took the stand for two days, testifying that he never tried to hide anything about his relationship with Abramoff. While he admitted he had, at times, used poor judgment in some of the e-mails he sent to Abramoff, he maintained he did not believe Abramoff’s interests met the technical standards of “doing business” with the agency. Safavian first came under scrutiny in March 2003, when an anonymous caller to the GSA raised questions about the Scotland trip. Safavian gave an official in the inspector general’s office the GSA ethics opinion clearing him to go on the trip, and no further action was taken. Then, in the spring of 2004, he sent the same ethics opinion, which included the false statement about Abramoff’s business, to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which was also probing the Scotland trip. But it wasn’t until May 2005 that federal investigators first approached him. He was arrested in September. The jury’s deliberations in the case were not problem-free. The judge dismissed one juror on the second day, forcing the remaining jurors to start deliberations over again. On Tuesday morning attorneys for both sides were in court again to discuss scheduling problems with three other jurors when the jury came back, after three and a half days, with its decision. After the verdict was read, Safavian’s family and friends seated in the courtroom broke down in tears. Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, vowed to appeal the decision. She called the entire government investigation of her client an attempt to make “a mountain out of a molehill.” Though she said she believed the jury had deliberated thoroughly, she argued that the introduction of many of the e-mails into evidence, as well as the language of the jury form, was improper and had prejudiced the outcome of the case.

Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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