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Abramoff Scandal
Former Bush official headed to trial in Abramoff probe


A former Bush administration official is scheduled to go to trial in late May on charges that he lied to federal investigators about his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

David H. Safavian was in court in Washington, D.C., Friday to seek dismissal of the false statement and obstruction of justice charges that were laid against him last September. Citing a lack of evidence and potential misconduct, his three attorneys argued that federal prosecutors have failed to make a case.

"Why go to trial?" said attorney Barbara Van Gelder during the two-hour hearing. "Why subject him to the expense, torture and turmoil of trial?"

But during arguments from both sides, the judge handling the case indicated he was going to reject the motion to dismiss. Judge Paul L. Friedman said it should be up to a jury to decide whether Safavian is guilty of lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and other federal investigators.

"If the jury finds this is ambiguous, then they'll find him not guilty," Friedman said.

With that in mind, Friedman took the motion to dismiss under advisement. He granted one motion to require the Indian Affairs Committee to turn over a document related to the investigation and denied another motion to open up the grand jury evidence used against Safavian.

Friedman then scheduled a May 22 trial, expected to last five days, in a case that has attracted attention due to publicity surrounding Abramoff, a high-flying Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to defrauding tribes and attempting to bribe a member of Congress. Safavian, in his only public statement during the proceeding, stood up and waived his legal rights to a speedy trial.

If the case makes it to the jury, Safavian's relationship with Abramoff will be a major theme. In the mid-1990s, both worked together at the Preston Gates law firm, where they represented wealthy tribes eager to protect their gaming enterprises from non-Indian gaming and other tribes.

Safavian broke away to form his own lobbying firm with Grover Norquist, another Abramoff ally. Their clients included the National Indian Gaming Association and other gaming tribes whose interests were similar to Abramoff's.

"He might be the only person in Washington who claims Jack Abramoff is a friend," Van Gelder said of Safavian.

But Safavian's lobbying work is not at issue in the case. Instead, he is accused of misleading investigators about a golfing trip he took to Scotland in 2002 with Abramoff, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and other friends.

At the time, Safavian was chief of staff for the General Services Administration. In the statements at issue in the case, he told ethics officials at GSA that Abramoff, a registered lobbyist, had no "business" before the agency. He made similar comments to the Indian Affairs Committee when a staff member inquired about the trip, according to investigators.

The Department of Justice claims Safavian lied because Abramoff had in fact inquired about federal properties under GSA's control. Documents show Abramoff wanted to secure the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington for a tribal client even through no tribe had agreed to seek the property.

"I like this approach," Abramoff wrote to an associate in a July 6, 2002, e-mail. "I just have to figure out the tribe to use."

The meaning of "doing business" or "seeking to do business" emerged as the key sticking point in the case. The jury will have to decide whether Safavian covered up Abramoff's interests in lobbying the GSA.

During the hearing, Van Gelder laid the groundwork for a possible defense -- that Abramoff lied to Safavian. Although Abramoff financed the trip using tribal money, including $25,000 from a Texas tribe, Safavian paid his own way with a $3,100 check.

Safavian didn't know what Abramoff was doing "behind the curtain," Van Gelder said.

Van Gelder also argued that Abramoff was really lobbying Congress on GSA matters. She said he obtained the assistance of friendly lawmakers -- naming Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) as one of them -- in trying to secure the Old Post Office Pavilion for tribal use. She alluded to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and said he was going to insert provisions in an election reform act to benefit Abramoff.

"Mr. Abramoff was asking Capitol Hill to try go get the GSA to do what he wanted," Van Gelder said.

Two Department of Justice attorneys argued against Safavian's motions. They said the federal government will prove Abramoff was seeking to do business before the GSA and that Safavian lied about his relationship with Abramoff.

"We will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these allegations are true," said attorney Nathaniel B. Edmonds.

As part of his plea agreement, Abramoff is cooperating with federal investigators in the case against Safavian and others who might be drawn into the controversy. Edmonds indicated Abramoff's bilking of tribes will be an issue.

"Mr. Abramoff did not pay for it," Edmonds said of the Scotland trip. "It was the Indian tribes who paid for it."

Safavian was working at the White House Office of Management and Budget on procurement matters at the time of his arrest last September. He had silently quit his post shortly before the charges were made public.