Ex-Bush Official Linked to Abramoff Found Guilty in Lobbying Case

ByJason Ryan and Jennifer Duck

June 20, 2006 — -- A federal jury in Washington, D.C., convicted former Bush administration official David Safavian of obstructing justice in a trial that tested the strength of the government's investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his controversial connections on Capitol Hill.

Safavian, formerly the federal government's chief procurement officer, was convicted Tuesday on four counts of making false statements and obstructing justice for impeding investigations into his relationship with Abramoff.

The jury found Safavian not guilty on a fifth count that he lied to Senate investigators on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who were looking into Abramoff's lobbying efforts for Indian tribes. This was the first trial related to the scandal stemming from the dealings of Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to federal crimes.

Once the trial adjourned, Safavian hugged his wife and they both began to cry together and comfort each other. Safavian faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for each of the four counts he was convicted on, plus a $250,000 fine.

Outside the courthouse, Safavian's attorney, Barbara Van Gelder said the fight is not over. "We will, of course, appeal the charges that Mr. Safavian was found guilty on, in part because we think that a lot of the evidence that came in was evidence that was not for the truth," Van Gelder said.

Safavian, a 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.

The Justice Department alleged that instead of doing the work of a government employee, Safavian was working to further the business interests of Ambramoff by helping him navigate government leasing opportunities.

The government alleged that shortly after May 2002, when Safavian became the GSA chief of staff, Abramoff began to contact him about obtaining leases for GSA-owned property where Abramoff wished to build a school. Although Abramoff did not testify, the government's evidence during the trial relied heavily on e-mails between him and Safavian.

The jury also saw several pictures and business records from an August 2002 golf trip to Scotland that Abramoff arranged. Safavian was one of eight people on the Scotland golf outing, along with Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed.

The government alleged that Safavian misled GSA ethics officials who allowed him to attend the trip -- they said it cost close to $100,000 for all eight people to attend, yet Safavian only paid $3,100.

Ney was a critical figure on the Scotland trip, and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, was the government's key witness. When asked if any public officials paid for dinner, golf and hotels on the Scotland trip, Volz said, "No, they did not."

After leaving Ney's office in 2002, Volz became a lobbyist for Abramoff's firm. Volz pleaded guilty in May to violating lobbying laws and conspiring to corrupt public officials.

Volz was on the Scotland trip as an Abramoff employee, and he testified that Ney and his staff filled out the congressional disclosure forms with the incorrect amount of $3,100. Volz approved the amount because he thought it would pass the "smell test" and reporters wouldn't notice, he said, noting it would look bad if constituents saw the bills for golf, meals and drinks and no "official" business or meetings with government officials in Scotland.

While the Safavian case did not focus on activities of Ney, he appeared in several pictures from the trip shown to the jury. Ney has been implicated in previous court records as part of the Abramoff investigations but is only identified as "representative #1," according to federal law enforcement officials.

Contacted by ABC News, Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement: "The Safavian case had nothing to do with Congressman Ney, and the congressman reiterates that he has never engaged in any improper, unethical or illegal activity. He is confident that the lies and deception of Jack Abramoff will continue to be exposed and that he will be vindicated when all of the facts are presented."

Safavian also 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 said. He also denied misleading GSA ethics officials, the FBI and Senate investigators about his connections with Abramoff.

Prosecutors Peter Zeidenberg and Nathaniel Edmonds said that Safavian left out critical information to GSA ethics officers about his dealings and background with Abramoff. Eugenia Ellison, a top GSA ethics official, told the jury she relied on Safavian's assurances that Abramoff conducted all of his lobbying business on Capitol Hill and had no business before the GSA.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January in two separate investigations. In Washington, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and honest services mail fraud. Abramoff was sentenced in late March to five years, 10 months in prison for conspiracy and wire fraud in Florida for his involvement in the fraudulent purchase of Sun Cruz casinos.

The Justice Department's criminal investigation of Abramoff has resulted in five guilty pleas of former Abramoff associates, as well as Safavian's conviction.

The investigation into Abramoff activities continues, and targets of the investigation could include current and former Capitol Hill staffers and members of Congress, according to law enforcement sources. Court filings show that Abramoff continues to cooperate with the government.

Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said outside the courthouse today, "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. No one is above the law."

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