A federal jury on Tuesday found David Safavian, the former federal procurement chief on trial in connection with his dealings with Jack Abramoff, guilty on four of five charges involving lying and obstructing official investigations.
Safavian was convicted on three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing an investigation. He was cleared on a fifth charge of obstructing an investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The verdict came early on the fifth day of deliberations, with jurors finding that Safavian made false statements to an ethics official at the General Services Administration, where he worked as chief of staff, both by concealing that he assisted Abramoff with agency activities and by stating that the lobbyist did all his work on Capitol Hill.
The jury also found Safavian had lied to the GSA inspector general's office by concealing his dealings with Abramoff, and to the Senate committee in a letter stating that Abramoff did not have business with the GSA at the time of a 2002 golf trip to Scotland that Safavian took with the lobbyist.
Safavian faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the four counts, though his lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said she would draw on his clean record in arguing that he serve less than the full 20 years. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 12.
Van Gelder said her client will appeal the jury's decision, a process she said could take many years.
As possible grounds for appeal, Van Gelder cited concerns with the verdict form, which she said used overly broad language and introduced new wording that had not been defined during the trial. She also described instructions on how the jury was to consider a flood of e-mail traffic between Safavian and Abramoff as confusing and "hypertechnical," with some messages to be considered solely for the fact that they were sent, while others could be considered as statements of fact.
Van Gelder, who spoke with several jurors after the verdict was announced, said, "It's clear the e-mails certainly played … a maybe more central role than they should have," noting that their sheer volume gave the government's case "heft."
But she said the verdict could not be taken as a clear indication of how others caught up in the Abramoff scandal may fare should they face trial. "Each defendant is a snowflake," she said, noting that others who pleaded guilty had admitted to different charges relating to provision of their "good and honest services."
Van Gelder said the decision could have a chilling effect on government officials considering whether to seek ethics opinions if they feel that might open them up to future charges.
"I've always been perplexed by why the Justice Department took out the howitzers and started aiming them at David Safavian," she said. But she stood by her decision not to subpoena Abramoff during the trial, saying his status as a cooperating government witness would have limited her access to interview him in advance.
After the judge read the verdict and the lawyers, court officials and much of the public had left the room, Safavian continued to sit blank-faced on a bench in the courtroom with his wife, Jennifer, who testified during the trial.
Van Gelder said the past several weeks have been emotional for her client. "This has been a very long road for Mr. Safavian," she said.