The Justice Department on Tuesday won its first trial in the probe of influence peddler Jack Abramoff, convicting a former Bush administration official in a case that touched on questionable behavior by members of Congress.
A jury found David Safavian had hidden details of his relationship with Abramoff from a General Services Administration ethics lawyer, the GSA’s Inspector General’s office and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and had obstructed the IG.
Safavian, the GSA’s former chief of staff, could face up to five years in prison on each of those four counts. He was acquitted of obstructing the Senate probe.
The guilty verdict is expected to give a boost to a wide-ranging federal investigation that includes lawmakers, their aides and members of the Bush administration.
“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 for which they serve _ to tell the truth,” said Alice Fisher, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division.
In Miami, meanwhile, a judge granted Abramoff and ex-business partner Adam Kidan another three months before they must begin serving prison sentences for fraud convictions stemming from the purchase of a gambling boat fleet. Abramoff also faces sentencing in Washington on federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud.
The delay will give the two more time to cooperate with investigators.
In persuading a jury to convict Safavian, prosecutors introduced a photograph of Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Abramoff standing next to a private jet that whisked them and other members of a golfing party to Scotland for five days at the storied St. Andrews Old Course. Safavian was in the photo too, as were two of Ney’s aides who also went on the Abramoff-organized junket.
Recent Justice Department court papers say Ney engaged in 16 actions on behalf of Abramoff at the same time the congressman and his staff were accepting gifts from the lobbyist.
In response to Tuesday’s verdict, Ney’s office blamed Ney’s problems on “the lies and deception of Jack Abramoff.”
Ney “has never, at any point, engaged in any improper, unethical or illegal activity” and the Safavian case “had absolutely nothing to do with Congressman Ney,” his office said.
Prosecutors never called Abramoff to testify, instead relying on e-mail traffic to detail the relationship between the lobbyist and Safavian.
Abramoff, the e-mails showed, showered the GSA chief of staff with the lobbyist’s largesse while badgering him for information about two pieces of government-controlled property the lobbyist wanted. One of them was the historic Old Post Office in downtown Washington.
Testifying in his own defense, Safavian said he and Abramoff were longtime friends and that he was trying to do the right thing by seeking a GSA ethics opinion on whether he could go on the Scotland trip.
Safavian sat impassively as U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman read the verdict, showing no emotion when the judge announced the guilty verdicts on each of four counts. Sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 12.
Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said the Justice Department task force investigating the Abramoff scandal will say that “this was a great day in the war on corruption. I find they made a mountain out of a molehill and now they’re going to plant the flag on top of the molehill.”
Van Gelder said convicting Safavian for not disclosing certain details to the ethics officer will dissuade other government officials from seeking such guidance.
Safavian did not disclose the advice and assistance he gave Abramoff on the two properties, including what Safavian acknowledged on the stand was some inside information about the position of officials in other agencies about the post office redevelopment.
In a bid for a lighter sentence on his own conviction, Neil Volz, Ney’s former chief of staff, testified for the prosecution. Volz outlined how the Abramoff team received assistance on the GSA properties from several Republican congressmen or their aides including Ney, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and a former top aide to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
Volz told the jury the Abramoff team referred to Safavian and Ney as two of their “champions” who helped with inside information and assistance. Volz said Safavian was the mastermind of some of the strategy for developing congressional pressure or action to sway GSA. Volz said they tried to keep this maneuvering secret.
Ney’s office called it “baffling” that Ney could be referred to as a champion for Abramoff “when there is no evidence that he took any official action on any of the issues Neil testified about.”
Young’s office has said he did not advocate any particular business over another. LaTourette said he was simply advocating special opportunities for small businesses. Capito’s office said the congresswoman was unaware of assistance provided by her then-chief of staff.
© 2006 The Associated Press