WASHINGTON – The arrest of a former White House official marks a new phase in the investigation of Jack Abramoff (search) in which authorities seek to extract information about the high-powered Republican lobbyist.
David Safavian (search) was arrested Monday and charged with making false statements and obstructing a federal investigation relating to a 2002 golf outing to Scotland with Abramoff, former Christian Coalition executive Ralph Reed, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and others.
Safavian is the first person to face charges arising out of the probe of Abramoff, a major Republican fundraiser with close ties to GOP leaders in Congress.
Investigators frequently seek to pressure minor players in complex federal probes as they build a case against their principal target.
"You squeeze that person and hope he flips as you work your way up to the top," said Kirby Behre (search), a former prosecutor who is a partner at the Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker law firm in Washington.
Abramoff is under investigation for his lobbying activities on behalf of Indian tribes and his role in paying for overseas trips for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search). The Texas Republican has denied knowing Abramoff paid the expenses.
Separately, Abramoff has pleaded innocent to a six-count federal fraud and conspiracy indictment stemming from his role in the 2000 purchase of a fleet of gambling boats in Florida.
Safavian, a former Abramoff lobbying associate, abruptly resigned last week as the Bush administration's top procurement official, three days before his arrest.
He had hid from investigators that Abramoff had business before the General Services Administration — where Safavian was chief of staff in 2002 — when they took their Scotland trip, according to federal authorities.
Safavian met with an FBI agent in May about the travel, including a round of golf at St. Andrews, and Abramoff's interest in acquiring property from GSA, according to the federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.
Barbara Van Gelder (search), Safavian's lawyer, said federal authorities are attempting to pressure her client to cooperate with the Abramoff investigation. She said he would fight the charges.
Safavian accurately reported that Abramoff was not doing business with GSA at the time of the trip, Van Gelder said.
"This is a creative use of the criminal code to secure his cooperation against someone else," Van Gelder said in an interview Wednesday.
Federal agents arrested him at his home in Virginia, rather than allow him to turn himself in, as is often done in white-collar criminal cases. Safavian has not been indicted.
"These charges are relatively minor federal charges," said David Schertler, another former federal prosecutor in Washington. "It does show they're trying to use some of the muscle of law enforcement to send a message to him but probably to others as well that this could happen to you."
A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way disputed the notion that people charged in white-collar crimes typically are allowed to turn themselves in, but acknowledged that securing Safavian's cooperation could have been one reason for the way prosecutors handled his arrest and the resulting publicity.
The Justice Department issued a news release announcing the arrest only after Safavian had been taken to federal court and released without bail. Prosecutors have made no comment since.
Safavian's next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 7.