Guilt by Association

David Safavian, former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, pays a heavy price for his poor choice of friends.

Monday, Sept. 19, 2005, started out as a typical morning for David Safavian, then head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget. As he drove his daughter to day care, that quickly changed. Sirens blared, forcing him to pull over. It was the FBI. After letting him drop off his daughter, agents arrested him on charges of making false statements and obstructing a federal investigation.

Almost a year later, Safavian, 39, was convicted on four counts of obstruction, lying and making false statements. The jury found he had obstructed an investigation by the General Services Administration Inspector General into a 2002 overseas golf trip that Safavian had taken with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At the time, Safavian was chief of staff at GSA. He also was convicted of concealing Abramoff's GSA-related business dealings before receiving permission from a GSA ethics officer to go on the trip. Jurors likely were influenced by e-mails in which Abramoff asked Safavian for information about GSA property. Safavian used a personal e-mail account to forward information about the property.

He had requested probation, home detention and community service in lieu of prison time, but prosecutors asked for two and a half to three years in prison. On Oct. 27, Safavian was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Since his arrest, Safavian vigorously has denied wrongdoing. He argued in court that he believed his $3,100 check paid for his full cost of the trip, even though it entailed international plane fare, luxurious hotels and playing golf at one of the most prestigious courses in the world. Prosecutors put the cost of the trip at $17,500 per person. In September, Safavian appealed the guilty verdict; the process could take years.

Whether Safavian used his official position to help Abramoff in an illegal or unethical way is unclear; the jury didn't examine that question directly. Before official requests for proposals for government contracts are released, the Federal Acquisition Regulation encourages government officials to talk with contractors and to share information and ideas. Still, business-related e-mails sent via a personal account to a lobbyist who recently provided a lavish junket looked bad, and Safavian knew that. In one January 2003 e-mail, he warned Abramoff not to forward to anyone else his e-mail containing information about a GSA lease.

Other senior administration officials who have engaged in similarly questionable conduct have not faced prosecution. In July, U.S. News & World Report said that the Interior Department's inspector general had found that David Smith, then deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, was given a buffalo's preserved remains by a taxidermist friend in December 2004. The previous month, Smith had designated Houston as a port of entry, which enabled his friend to import dead game animals without paying large permit fees. After the IG began his investigation, Smith paid $3,170 for the animal. The Justice Department declined to prosecute.

Safavian's and Smith's cases appear quite similar, except for the involvement of Abramoff, a disgraced lobbyist who is at the heart of one of the biggest Washington scandals in decades. Prosecutors have doggedly pursued Abramoff and those connected with him. He pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in January 2006, faces at least six years in prison and currently is cooperating with the FBI. His colleagues have suffered similar fates: Tom DeLay, who resigned in June as a Republican congressman from Texas, was indicted on campaign finance-related charges in September 2005; Robert Ney, R-Ohio, agreed to plead guilty in September to making false statements and faces up to two years in prison; and Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy and faces up to five years in prison.

Safavian's prison time will take him away from his 3-year-old daughter and wife, an attorney on the House Government Reform Committee. Most people who have worked with him say he's a friendly, charismatic and ambitious person. It's not hard to believe that Safavian believed he and Abramoff were friends, even after reading the lobbyist's e-mail to someone else describing Safavian as a "total business angle."

A few days after his conviction, Safavian e-mailed friends and family. Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, published the message. "To be honest, I am not sure how to react," Safavian wrote. "I find myself disappointed, angry, scared, frustrated and hurt."

A year and a half ago, Safavian proudly displayed a bullet-riddled target poster on the back of his office door at the Old Executive Office Building. It was there to remind visitors that he volunteered as a reserve officer with the Washington, D.C., Police Department. Now, as a convicted felon, he is prohibited from owning firearms. He cannot vote or hold public office.

And he won't be playing golf again anytime soon.

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