WASHINGTON — A jury Tuesday convicted a former Bush administration official of four counts of lying and obstructing justice in the first trial to be held in connection with the influence-peddling scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Safavian was convicted on four of five felony counts of lying and obstruction. He had resigned from his White House post last year as the federal government’s chief procurement officer.
The verdict gave a boost to the wide-ranging influence peddling probe that focuses on Abramoff’s dealings with Congress.
In the Safavian case, prosecutors highlighted the name of Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. They introduced a photograph of the congressman and Abramoff standing in front of a private jet that whisked them and other members of a golfing party for a five-day trip to the storied St Andrews Old Course in Scotland, and a second leg of the journey to London.
On the fifth day
The trial consumed eight days of testimony about Safavian’s assistance to Abramoff regarding government-owned real estate and the weeklong golfing excursion to Scotland that the lobbyist organized.
Safavian went on the trans-Atlantic trip while he was chief of staff at the General Services Administration, and other participants besides Ney included two of the congressman’s aides and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed.
The verdict came on the fifth day of jury deliberations.
Safavian sat impassively as the judge read the verdict and showed no expression when the judge announced the guilty verdicts on each of four counts. Sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 12.
“The task force will say how this was a great day in the war on corruption,” said Barbara van Gelder, Safavian’s lawyer, referring to the Justice Department task force investigating the Abramoff scandal. “I find they made a mountain out of a molehill and now they’re going to plant the flag on top of the molehill.”
Alice Fisher, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, said the message of the Safavian case is that people who undergo questioning by federal investigators must “tell the truth.”
Real estate and a golf trip
Safavian was charged with lying about his relationship with Abramoff and his knowledge of the lobbyist’s interest in acquiring properties from GSA, the property managing agency for the federal government. He was also charged with obstructing investigators looking into a golf trip he took with Abramoff in 2002.
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The trial consumed eight days of testimony about Safavian’s assistance to Abramoff regarding government-owned real estate and a weeklong golfing excursion the lobbyist organized to the famed St. Andrews golf course in Scotland and London.
Safavian went on the trans-Atlantic trip while he was chief of staff at the GSA, and other participants included Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, two Ney aides and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed.
The jury found Safavian guilty of obstructing the work of the GSA inspector general and of lying to a GSA ethics official. It also convicted him of lying to the GSA’s Office of Inspector General and of making a false statement to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He was acquitted of a charge of obstructing the committee’s investigation.
First case from Abramoff scandal
This was the first trial to emerge from the scandal surrounding Abramoff, who is a former business partner of Safavian. Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to federal crimes here and in Miami, would likely be a witness if the Justice Department assembles criminal cases against any members of Congress.
The government made its case without ever putting Abramoff on the witness stand. It relied on the testimony of the officials Safavian was accused of deceiving.
A key witness in the case was Neil Volz, a convicted partner of Abramoff’s and ex-chief of staff to Ney. Prosecutors introduced hundreds of e-mails exchanged among Safavian, Abramoff, Volz and others in 2002.
The Justice Department made a case that Safavian provided Abramoff advice and some inside information about two government properties including the Old Post Office in downtown Washington.
Prosecutors said Abramoff wanted to buy or lease part of the GSA’s White Oak property in the Maryland suburbs for use by a Jewish school he had established. They also said he wanted to give an Indian tribe client a leg up on obtaining the contract to redevelop the Old Post Office in as a luxury hotel, near two restaurants Abramoff owned.
One of their ‘champions’ inside government
Volz testified the Abramoff team referred to Safavian as one of their “champions” inside government, who could give them insider information they couldn’t get elsewhere. He 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.
Prosecutors showed that Safavian’s advice began right after he went to work at GSA and was intensely pursued in the weeks before Safavian went on the weeklong golfing expedition to Scotland in August 2002. Abramoff had arranged the trip for members of Congress and invited Safavian to come along when one of them dropped out.
Safavian took the stand for two days in his own defense. He acknowledged some misjudgments and forwarding Abramoff some insider information, such as the position of other government officials on the GSA properties, but attributed these errors to his inexperience.
Basically he maintained he simply gave generally available information to an old friend who was inquiring about government property that the GSA had not even decided what to do with yet.
He said he answered all investigators’ questions. Safavian said he didn’t volunteer information about his advice on the two properties. Safavian said he didn’t consider Abramoff was doing or seeking business with GSA because the agency wasn’t letting contracts at the time.
$3,100 check didn’t cover trip costs
Safavian claimed he thought he paid all of his costs with a $3,100 check to Abramoff on takeoff, though he acknowledged that trial testimony had shown him some elements were more expensive than he thought.
Prosecutors said the trip of nine participants cost more than $130,000. They scoffed at the notion anyone could think $3,100 would cover his share of chartered jet travel, $400 and $500-a-night hotels, $400 rounds of golf and $100 rounds of drinks.
GSA officials and a Senate investigator said Safavian never told them about the advice he was giving Abramoff on the two properties or details about the Scotland costs. They also said they would have wanted to hear that. The GSA officials said if they had known, they might have ruled differently on his request to go on the trip. The GSA Inspector General’s office closed an investigation of the trip without taking any action against Safavian in 2003. Safavian’s problems didn’t begin until 2004 when investigators began looking into Abramoff’s illegal conduct.
© 2013 msnbc.com