After five guilty pleas in the influence-peddling investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the first criminal trial is set to begin Monday.
David Safavian, the former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, then the top White House procurement officer, and a longtime friend and associate of Abramoff, is charged with five counts of making false statements and obstructing investigations into a golfing trip to Scotland he took with Abramoff and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, in August 2002. If convicted, Safavian faces up to 25 years in jail and more than $1 million in fines.
The golf trip took place at a time when Abramoff expressed a keen interest in acquiring several properties controlled by GSA. Months before the trip, Ney allegedly lifted a gambling ban benefiting an Abramoff tribal client, by inserting the language into an election reform bill.
The trial comes at a crucial time for Ney, who is now under investigation by both the Department of Justice and the House Ethics Committee. On Friday, two aides to Ney received subpoenas; Bill Heaton, chief of staff, and Paul Vinovich, committee staff director. The clerk of the House announced the subpoenas according to House rules.
One of the prosecution's expected key witnesses will be Neil Volz, a former chief of staff to Ney, who just a week ago pleaded guilty to entering into a conspiracy with Abramoff to corrupt public officials and violate lobbying rules. Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said, in a pretrial hearing, that Volz likely will testify about suggestions from Safavian about creating language, to be inserted into legislation, that could have helped convey some GSA-owned property to Abramoff and his clients. Abramoff sought leases on the Old Post Office in downtown Washington and a former Navy facility in the White Oak section of Silver Spring, Md.
Abramoff will not appear as a witness at the trial — but his presence will certainly be felt. Prosecutors intend to introduce more than 200 e-mails between Abramoff and Safavian. In fact, prosecutors have signaled that the e-mails will make up the bulk of their case against Safavian.
Prosecutors say at 8:37 p.m. on July 27, 2002, a Saturday night, Abramoff sent two e-mails to Safavian, then the newly appointed chief of staff at the GSA.
One message went to Safavian's government e-mail address. "Superb!!" Abramoff wrote, expressing delight that Safavian had been cleared by the GSA's general counsel to go on the Scotland trip.
The second message, sent to Safavian's personal e-mail, read: "If you can spare a moment, please let me know where I can call you this weekend. If not, chat on Monday. Regards."
More e-mail exchanges
On July 28, additional e-mail exchanges between Abramoff and Safavian show that the lobbyist wanted Safavian's advice on editing a letter to the GSA, seeking use of facilities at the former Naval Surface Weapons Research Center in Silver Spring for a private school Abramoff and his wife had founded. "How about this?" Abramoff asked Safavian in an e-mail with a draft of the letter.
Prosecutors will present the e-mails as portraying a sordid relationship between a government official and a wily lobbyist who dangled the good life; peppering Safavian with invitations to play racquetball or golf or to meals at his downtown restaurant, Signatures. Abramoff even offered Safavian a chance to join his "band of merry men" at the Greenberg/Traureg lobbying firm, when Safavian left government service. In exchange, according to prosecutors, Abramoff sought favored treatment and privileged inside information.
Defense attorney: Correspondence between old friends
Barbara Van Gelder, Safavian's attorney, argues that her client did nothing wrong. The e-mails, she suggests, reflect the communications between two old friends. And, she has said in court, that Abramoff did not have a formal business relationship with the GSA at the time of the Scotland golf trip.
But the e-mails do provide a rare glimpse of how Abramoff did business in Washington. Along with queries for information on GSA properties, Abramoff was also looking for bargains from his friends. On Aug. 21, 2002, Abramoff sent an e-mail to his friend Safavian at GSA. "I have a need to buy a stretch limo for the restaurant," Abramoff wrote, referring to Signatures. "Are there any coming up on any of the GSA drug property sales?" Safavian, according to court documents, wrote back that the GSA does not auction off seized cars. But he added that he was willing to assist: "Let me call a friend at the Marshal's Service. They handle drug seizures." Abramoff replied: "I was thinking of the druggies bounty. No problem. Thanks, see you Friday."
Joel Seidman is an NBC News producer covering Washington.