A convicted lobbyist described Tuesday how he obtained insider information and advice from Bush administration procurement chief David Safavian to advance two projects for Republican influence-peddler Jack Abramoff, who then took the official on a lavish golf trip to Scotland.
A partner of Abramoff’s at the time, Neil Volz also outlined in U.S. District Court how the Abramoff team received assistance from several Republican congressmen or their aides including Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rep. Don Young of Alaska and Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio.
The government’s star witness against Safavian, Volz, was a former chief of staff to Ney. Volz has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for some of the behavior he testified about. Facing an 18- to 24-month prison sentence, he hopes cooperation with prosecutors will win him probation only.
Just weeks after the assistance, Safavian, Ney and two members of Ney’s staff accompanied Abramoff, Volz and other Abramoff associates on an August 2002 golf trip to the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland and then to London. Volz said the bills for $500-a-night hotel rooms in London, $100 rounds of drinks, $400 rounds of golf, dinners and travel on a private Gulfstream jet were paid by Abramoff and his staff, and he never saw Safavian pay any expenses.
On cross-examination, Safavian’s lawyer Barbara Van Gelder got Volz to admit that Safavian told him in Scotland he was paying Abramoff $3,100 for his expenses.
Trying to pass the ‘smell test’
She also got Volz to acknowledge he once said that figure was “low but reasonable.” But Volz quickly explained that by “reasonable” he only meant that reporters wouldn’t question it. “I was more concerned about spin than potential legal consequences,” Volz added.
Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds used Volz’ descriptions of the costs to suggest the trip was far more expensive. Edmonds showed that Ney reported $1,200 in hotel expenses although Volz said Ney spent two nights in London in the Mandarin Hotel, which charged $500 a night for the congressional staff rooms, leaving only $200 to cover the cost of four nights at St. Andrews.
The Abramoff team sent Ney partially filled out draft financial disclosure forms for him to use in filing disclosures with Congress that falsely understated the total cost of the trip at $3,200, Volz testified.
“I thought that number passed the smell test,” Volz said, explaining that he hoped that reporters searching public records for travel abuses would pass right over it without asking questions.
In a statement, Ney’s spokesman, Brian J. Walsh, said, “Congressman Ney filed exactly what his office was told to be the cost of the trip ... what every other member who has taken a privately funded trip has done for years.”
In court, however, prosecutor Edmonds pointed out to the jury that the official date stamp on Ney’s disclosure form, due within 30 days of the trip, showed it was not filed until September 2004, the same month news stories appeared about the trip.
Government’s key witness
The prosecution turned Volz’s testimony into a tutorial on how a corrupt lobbyist like Volz gathers information, rewards officials who help influence government decisions and tries to operate in secrecy.
Safavian was the government’s top procurement official before he was indicted on charges of lying to investigators about assisting his ex-partner Abramoff while serving in 2002 as chief of staff at the General Services Administration, the government property management agency.
Volz testified that the Abramoff team referred to Safavian as a “champion” because he could get inside information not otherwise available to lobbyists.
He said Safavian gave advice on how to get information for use in secretly amending an election reform bill near passage in Congress so that it also directed the GSA to sell the so-called White Oak property in Silver Spring, Md., to a school Abramoff had established.
‘Rig the rules’
Volz also described how Safavian advised him on when to get letters from key congressmen to the GSA to alter a proposal to redevelop the Old Post Office in Washington in a way that would give one of Abramoff’s clients, the Chitimacha Indian tribe, an advantage over other bidders.
“We were trying to rig the rules so our client would have the best chance” of winning the redevelopment project, Volz testified.
Volz said he was frustrated because Congress was nearing its summer recess and would not be able to expedite a lease on the White Oak property. He said Ney reassured him that he could help Volz with "another legislative vehicle."
Nothing was added by Ney to the election legislation to help Abramoff. Weeks later, Abramoff, Safavian, Volz, Ney and two of his current aides took a lavish trip to Scotland.
Describing help they requested from Capito’s office on the White Oak project, Volz said they wanted to keep her role secret.
“She was up for re-election and this potentially could have put her in harm’s way on the campaign trail ... because this project doesn’t have anything to do with her district,” Volz explained.
Speaking for Capito late Tuesday, Jordan Stoick said the lawmaker had no knowledge of any conversations between her former chief of staff Mark Johnson and Volz and never consented to her name being used in the Abramoff project.
Ney is under criminal investigation in the Abramoff probe. Abramoff entered guilty pleas early this year in Washington, D.C., and Florida.