Bush aide lied about relationship with Abramoff

Three ethics watchdogs testified Wednesday that a Bush administration executive left out important details of his relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including information about a weeklong golf excursion to Scotland and England arranged by the Republican influence-peddler.

Based on representations by David Safavian, the ethics watchdogs told a U.S. District Court jury that they approved the proposed trip for the General Services Administration official and closed an investigation of the trip the year after it took place.

In the first trial growing out of the Abramoff scandal, Safavian is facing five counts of lying to investigators about assisting his former partner Abramoff.

Barbara Van Gelder, attorney for Safavian, the GSA’s chief of staff, tried to show that her client was open about his relationship with Abramoff, checking with the agency to get approval for the August 2002 trip and inviting one inspector general investigator to check his story by contacting Abramoff.

Each of the three prosecution witnesses said they would have wanted to know from Safavian that at the time of the trip Abramoff was interested in two pieces of GSA-controlled property, including the Old Post Office in downtown Washington.

The GSA’s general counsel, Raymond McKenna, related how Safavian told him that he had decided to pay the entire cost of his share of the trip, including travel on a chartered private jet for which Safavian had initially obtained approval from GSA to accept for free. Safavian paid $3,100, a figure prosecutors say is thousands of dollars less than the real cost.

Prosecutors have introduced details of $500-a-night hotel rooms, $100 rounds of drinks and $400 rounds of golf rounds to suggest that it was obvious that each traveler’s costs were much higher.

Gregory Rowe, an investigator from the GSA’s office inspector general, related how Safavian told him the Scotland trip was for four days. Rowe said he estimated the daily expenses at $400 to $500 and that on that basis, “it fit.” Unknown to Rowe, there was a second leg of the trip, to London.

Van Gelder demonstrated that Rowe failed to ask details about the golfing trip or the London stop. Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg asked Rowe whether he trusted that Safavian was telling the truth.

“Yes,” Rowe replied.

Eugenia Ellison, a GSA lawyer and ethics officer, testified that she might not have authorized Safavian to accept free airfare for the golf vacation if she had known he was advising Abramoff about government properties.

Ellison said she relied on Safavian’s assurance that the donor was a friend who had no business before the government property management agency.

“I concluded it was not a (prohibited) gift because it was not given to him because of his position or by a prohibited source, but from a friend,” Ellison said of her decision to let Safavian accept free airfare to the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland from Abramoff.

Ellison testified she would have wanted to know before issuing her approval that Abramoff was seeking to have a GSA property in Maryland transferred either through congressionally authorized sale or by a short-term lease to a school he had established. She also said she would have wanted to know that Safavian was assisting Abramoff in accomplishing this transfer and in getting a letter from members of Congress to GSA about its plans for redeveloping the Old Post Office here, a project Abramoff wanted to help one of his clients win.

Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds asked her whether each of those pieces of information could have altered her approval. Each time, she replied, “Yes.”

Individuals doing or seeking business with an agency are prohibited in most cases from giving gifts to officials of those agencies.

Safavian’s request for permission did not identify Abramoff as the donor but said his friend had no business dealings with GSA at the time. In her ruling, Ellison said Safavian had provided assurances that neither Abramoff nor his company was doing or seeking business with GSA, but Ellison could not tell Van Gelder where she had heard the assurances about not seeking business or the name of Abramoff’s company.

Abramoff entered guilty pleas early this year in Washington, D.C., and Florida.

© 2006 The Associated Press