The Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals today overturned the conviction of former Bush administration official David Safavian, who was entangled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and ordered that he should be given a new trial.
The court ruled that the judge in Safavian's case erred in excluding expert testimony from his trial, and found that he did not lie about an ethics opinion that permitted him to travel on a golf outing with Abramoff.
Safavian, the former General Services Administration chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget official, was arrested in September 2005 on charges of lying about his links to Abramoff and obstructing justice.
He was convicted in June 2006 on four counts of lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. Today's ruling by the appeals court overturns his conviction.
The government alleged that shortly after May 2002, when Safavian became the GSA chief of staff, Abramoff contacted him about obtaining leases for GSA-owned property where Abramoff wished to build a school.
In today's ruling, the court determined that an expert defense witness who was excluded from testimony might have explained to the jury that, because Abramoff never obtained or executed a lease, Safavian was not lying when he told the court that Abramoff was not doing business with the GSA.
"We agree with Safavian that the district court abused its discretion in excluding favorable expert testimony on how government contracting professionals view having business or working with GSA," the appeals court wrote. "Safavian's expert would have testified that an individual is not doing business with GSA until a contract is awarded, and that getting information from GSA is simply that, getting information."
"Safavian contended that his statements were truthful because Abramoff never secured any GSA contract," the appeals court ruling noted. "With respect to the White Oak property, the headmaster of the school never requested a lease and GSA never transferred the property to the school."
Golf Outing Under the Spotlight
Although Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who is serving jail time on fraud charges, did not testify, the government's evidence during the trial relied heavily on pictures and records from an August 2002 golf trip to Scotland that Abramoff arranged, as well as e-mails between Abramoff and Safavian after the trip.
The government alleged that Safavian misled the GSA inspector general and GSA ethics officials, who allowed him to attend the trip. Safavian sought permission to take the trip and reimbursed his air travel, but prosecutors showed at trial that the trip cost close to $100,000 for all eight people to attend, yet Safavian only paid $3,100 in reimbursement.
At trial, Safavian testified and defended his role in seeking the ethics opinion that allowed him to go on the golf trip.
"I had nothing to hide about Jack Abramoff," he testified. Safavian also denied misleading GSA ethics officials, the FBI and Senate investigators about his connections with Abramoff.
The Court of Appeals noted in its opinion that Safavian "did not know the precise cost of his share. There was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that Safavian knew $3,100 was too low but that he told [inspector general] $3,100 was enough. The jury did not need to address Safavian's knowledge of exactly how low $3,100 was."
Others Plead Guilty in Abramoff Dealings
Safavian's case was the only Abramoff-related case to go to trial in the scandal stemming from the dealings with Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption, fraud and tax evasion. The investigations into Abramoff and his associates have involved 13 guilty pleas by various lobbyists, and government officials, including former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.
Safavian was one of eight people on the Scotland golf outing, along with Ney, his chief of staff Neil Volz, and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed. Ney pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in October 2006; Volz had pleaded guilty in May 2006 to bribery and corruption charges. Ney was a critical figure on the Scotland trip, and Volz was the government's key witness during the trial.
Contacted today about the ruling, Barbra Van Gelder, Safavian's defense attorney at trial, said, "The court of appeals understood the ethics issues."
A Justice Department spokeswoman said, "We are reviewing the court's decision," and provided no indication if they would retry the case.
Safavian, who has not been employed since his conviction, has been free, pending appeal.
"I hope the government takes a long look at this to see if they will retry the case," Van Gelder said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.