Juror misconduct delays Abramoff scandal trial

A federal judge must rule on possible misconduct by a juror before deliberations can resume in the first trial of the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The jury was weighing charges that former Bush administration official David Safavian concealed from ethics officials and investigators that he assisted Republican influence-peddler Jack Abramoff’s efforts to obtain two government properties. But it was sent home just four hours after getting the case Tuesday.

Prosecutors want one female juror dismissed; the defense opposes dismissal. After questioning the juror, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he would rule Wednesday and summoned the jury back later that morning.

On Tuesday, the 10 female and two male jurors had selected a foreman but had not even received their written copies of jury instructions nor begun any substantive deliberations when the problem arose.

Prosecutors argued that a female juror disregarded the judge’s instructions on several occasions and told other jurors Tuesday she had discussed the costs of a golf trip to Scotland with her father. Safavian’s expenses for an August 2002 golf trip to Scotland arranged by Abramoff have been an issue in trial testimony.

The defense opposed replacing the juror with the only alternate juror and said Friedman should instead just give jurors a stiff warning to stop all outside discussions.

Friedman also denied the jury’s request for a dictionary and told the jurors that if they needed definitions or had other questions to ask him by note.

Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist and former business partner of Safavian, was never called to testify, a point Safavian’s defense attorney emphasized in closing arguments Monday.

The defense characterized the trial as a clear case of prosecutorial excess, but the government depicted Safavian as an ethically challenged public servant trying to serve two masters.

As the General Services Administration’s chief of staff, Safavian “was appointed by the president to serve the people of the United States, but he chose instead to serve Jack Abramoff,” Justice Department lawyer Nathaniel Edmonds told the jury on Monday.

Prosecutors seized on dozens of e-mails in which Abramoff and Safavian exchanged information about two pieces of GSA-controlled property that Abramoff wanted for himself or his lobbying clients. Many of the e-mails were written in the weeks before Safavian joined the weeklong trans-Atlantic golfing jaunt organized by Abramoff.

Safavian lawyer Barbara Van Gelder said Safavian “was trying to do the right thing” when he paid $3,100 for the trip and got approval from GSA ethics officers for the golfing excursion to Scotland and London.

Prosecutors scoffed at the idea anyone could think $3,100 would cover the chartered jet fare, $400 and $500-a-night hotel rooms, $400 rounds of golf at the famed St. Andrews course and $100 rounds of drinks.

Edmonds said Safavian revealed nothing about the three-day London leg of the trip or the extent of the lavish accommodations. Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said if Safavian had told the truth, “there would have been questions” about who was paying for it and what business Abramoff had with GSA. Safavian told the ethics officers that Abramoff did all his work on Capitol Hill, a statement Van Gelder said is “literally true.”

She said the government failed to prove its case by not summoning Abramoff to testify.

“If the government does not call Jack Abramoff they have not met their burden,” Van Gelder said.

Prosecutors gave no reason for not calling Abramoff, who would likely be a witness if the Justice Department assembles criminal cases against any members of Congress. The disgraced lobbyist has pleaded guilty to crimes in federal courts in Washington, D.C., and in Miami.

© 2006 The Associated Press