Safavian: Advice to Abramoff did not cross line

David Safavian, former head of the Office of Management and Budget's procurement policy division, took the stand in his own defense for the second time Monday, describing how he provided assistance to his friend and former colleague Jack Abramoff in ways that approached, but did not cross, lines of propriety.

Safavian faces charges that he lied about his dealings with Abramoff to obtain clearance from the General Services Administration ethics office to go on a golfing trip to Scotland while serving as the chief of staff at that agency, and that he subsequently obstructed two investigations into his participation in the trip.

As the final witness in his own defense, Safavian testified that he had advised Abramoff on efforts to take over two GSA-controlled properties, as was clear from a large number of e-mail messages presented as evidence by Justice Department lawyers earlier in the case. But on Friday, Safavian testified that while he had not expected some of that assistance to actually help, he had moved his friend's queries forward so Abramoff could get answers from the appropriate GSA decision-makers.

Safavian said he had arranged a meeting and provided information about a large GSA property in White Oak, Md., that Abramoff hoped to lease for a religious school he and his wife founded, despite it being clear that the effort to lease the property would not ultimately succeed. Safavian said he had tried to explain that the religious nature of the school and potentially hazardous condition of the buildings ruled out leasing the property to Abramoff's Eshkol Academy.

"If you knew Jack Abramoff, you'd know he's a man who doesn't take 'no' for an answer," Safavian said to explain why he expended time and effort to provide information about the property and supported an eventual meeting between GSA officials and representatives of the school, including Abramoff's wife. That effort did not constitute "seeking to do business before the GSA," Safavian argued, in part because he felt it had virtually no chance of panning out.

At another point, Safavian attributed differences between his own decision-making and that of a GSA colleague to his having joined the federal government from Capitol Hill. Before entering GSA as chief of staff, Safavian worked on the Hill as chief of staff for Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, as well as in other staff positions. He also had worked as a lobbyist at the firms Preston Gates Ellis LLP and Janus-Merritt Strategies.

Safavian testified that in the process of advising Abramoff regarding the lobbyist's efforts to acquire the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., he at one point realized that pushback from GSA colleagues "was a sign for me that I shouldn't be so close with Jack Abramoff."

In a tough line of questioning that continued from Friday into Monday, federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg pushed Safavian to explain why he had not more closely examined his own invitation to join the lobbyist on the 2002 golfing trip to Scotland that has since landed several participants in hot water. Zeidenberg questioned why Safavian had accepted Abramoff's figure of $3,100 as his share of the trip, showing photographs of the luxury hotels where the group stayed and the charter airplane they had flown on.

Government lawyers presented credit card and automated teller machine receipts as evidence that Safavian had been spending generously, and said Abramoff's pre-trip estimate of $3,100 could not have been expected to include both scheduled and spontaneous costs. Multiple rounds of golf at $400 each, $100 caddie tips and rounds of expensive Scotch for the group should have led the defendant to question the modest sum he had paid in advance of leaving the United States, Zeidenberg argued.

Safavian answered many of the questions with the response that it had not occurred to him to verify the individual expenses, and that he had no reason to think Abramoff would have under-reported the cost of the trip.

"He knew I didn't want to take a gift," Safavian said. "He also knew I was concerned about appearances [of a conflict of interest]. Why would he sandbag me that way?"

Asked if he was still friends with Abramoff, Safavian said, "We haven't spoken in a long time but yes, I will always consider him my friend."

Following a morning of close questioning on Monday, Safavian was apparently not feeling well. A nurse entered the courtroom at a break for lunch, and when court resumed, the judge indicated that should Safavian feel unwell, proceedings could be stopped for a break.

The defense continued uninterrupted before concluding in the afternoon, however. Due to scheduling conflicts, closing arguments in the case will be heard Monday, June 12, following which the jury will begin its deliberations.

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