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Case of Ex-White House Aide Heads to Jury

POSTED: 07:09 PM ET, 12/16/2008 by Derek Kravitz

A former top White House official, on trial for a second time for allegedly lying and obstructing justice during the investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, unexpectedly decided today to forego taking the stand in his own defense, handing the case over to a jury.

David H. Safavian, the former chief of staff at the General Services Adminstration who was later promoted by President Bush to be the nation's top contracting policy official, did testify during his first trial in 2006.

But this afternoon he told U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman that while he had given the decision "a lot of thought," the "right course of action" was to not testify. Safavian's attorneys did not call a single defense witness as the six-day trial wrapped up today.

Safavian, 40, was the first public official who went to trial as part of the government's investigation into Abramoff, the once-powerful Republican lobbyist who was imprisoned for fraud and is serving a nearly six-year sentence in Cumberland, Md.

Safavian's June 2006 conviction and 18-month sentence for obstruction of justice and making false statements was a significant victory for the Justice Department, which subsequently went after several other high-profile names as part of its probe.

But a three-judge panel tossed out charges against Safavian in June and prosecutors re-indicted the former Bush administration official in October, adding on two additional felonies.

The allegedly false statements concerned how much Safavian owed for a $150,000 golfing trip with his friend Abramoff to St. Andrews, Scotland, and London. During closing arguments, Safavian's attorney, Larry Robbins, called the government's case "bad guesswork," arguing that his client relied on Abramoff's estimate of the cost.

"Who really knows what David Safavian's fair share was?...None of you could possibly know," Robbins said.

But prosecutor Justin Schur said Safavian did know and faced a proverbial "moment of truth" at least three times when he was asked by Senate and government investigators about the trip. Rather, Safavian sought "cover" in the form of an internal ethics review to justify the lavish weeklong golfing trip in August 2002.

Prosecutors say Safavian's share for a private chartered jet, $500-per-night hotels and golfing fees came closer to $17,453 instead of the $3,100 check he gave Abramoff.

"This is not a mistake," Schur said. "The defendant's lies were deliberate."

Prosecutors also sought to highlight Abramoff's inquiries to Safavian about two government-owned properties that his agency controlled, including the historic Old Post Office in downtown Washington, pointing to a host of e-mails between the pair in the days before the August 2002 trip.

"There is no doubt that (Abramoff) was lobbying GSA," Schur said. "There is no doubt the defendant knew it."

Safavian's defense attorneys said prosecutors took excerpts of the e-mails out of context and argued that Safavian was using "common GSA jargon" when asking for the internal review.

If convicted, Safavian, who is charged with three counts of providing false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice, faces up to five years in prison on each count.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who attended the trans-Atlantic trip, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is serving a 30-month prison sentence. Two other attendees -- Neil G. Volz, a congressional aide-turned-lobbyist, and William Heaton, a former Ney staffer who cooperated with the government -- were sentenced to two years' probation.

By Derek Kravitz |  December 16, 2008; 7:09 PM ET Abramoff Scandal
Previous: Sleuth to the Stars Gets 15-Year Sentence | Next: HUD Chief Blasts Mortgage Aid, Jackson Cooperated, SEC Madoff Investigation

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