Defense seeks immunity for witnesses in Safavian trial

Lawyer for former procurement chief says otherwise witnesses will invoke the Fifth Amendment, depriving defense of evidence.

Lawyers for David Safavian, the former head of procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget, late Monday filed a motion requesting immunity for several prospective witnesses in his defense.

The motion is a new wrinkle in the trial of Safavian, who has been charged with lying and obstructing investigations related to his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. According to the filing, three unidentified witnesses who have been subpoenaed to testify on Safavian's behalf have indicated they will try to avoid appearing, and if they are compelled to, will plead their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, told reporters Tuesday she could not identify the witnesses because they are the subjects of criminal investigations by the government on matters related to the charges facing Abramoff. But she questioned whether the individuals were of real interest to the government case, or were being targeted to prevent their testifying on Safavian's behalf.

"The government is locking up my witnesses with the threat of a grand jury," Van Gelder said.

In the motion, she asked that either the Justice Department or D.C. District Judge Paul Friedman, who is presiding over Safavian's trial, grant the witnesses immunity so they can freely testify. Failing that, she asked the court to dismiss the case against her client. That case concerns his actions while chief of staff of the General Services Administration, including his participation in a golfing trip to Scotland hosted by Abramoff.

Van Gelder said she expects the motion will lead to negotiation with government lawyers and the judge regarding how to proceed. Precedent stipulates that witnesses granted immunity under such conditions must be the only individuals who could provide the evidence in question, among other requirements.

While neither side has indicated an intention to put Abramoff on the stand, Van Gelder did not rule out that he could be one of the witnesses in question. The name of Paul Vinovich, a former staff director with the House Administration Committee who went on the Scotland trip along with former committee chairman Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, arose Tuesday as the two sides discussed whether Vinovich's business records from the trip would be admissible as evidence.

The trial continued on Tuesday with the second day of testimony by Anthony Costa, who headed the GSA national capital region office at the time that Safavian exchanged e-mails with Abramoff regarding two properties in the area. The defense argued that communications between the two were consistent with other interactions among GSA staff, congressional staffers and the public.

Van Gelder presented the train of e-mails, which closely mixed business discussions with personal and social matters, as an unremarkable exchange in which Safavian helpfully provided public information from his agency to a friend with relevant interests.

In informal discussion following the testimony, Van Gelder declined to say whether any nonpublic information was included in her client's communications with Abramoff.

Jeffrey Reising, a special agent with the FBI, testified regarding the retrieval of e-mails from the computer systems of Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff's former lobbying firm. Some of them showed Safavian seeking a job there, though he ultimately joined GSA instead.