WASHINGTON – A government ethics official testified Wednesday she might not have authorized a Bush administration executive to accept free airfare for a golf vacation if she had known he was advising the donor, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, about government properties.
Instead, Eugenia Ellison, an ethics officer and lawyer at the General Services Administration told a U.S. District Court jury that she relied on GSA chief-of-staff David Safavian's assurance that the donor was a friend who had no business before the government property management agency.
In the first trial growing out of the Abramoff scandal, Safavian is facing five counts of lying to investigators about assisting his former partner Abramoff.
"I concluded it was not a (prohibited) gift because it was not given to him because of his position or by a prohibited source, but from a friend," Ellison said of her decision to let Safavian accept free airfare to the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland from Abramoff in the summer of 2002.
Ellison testified she would have wanted to know before issuing her approval that Abramoff was seeking to have a GSA property in Maryland transferred either through congressionally authorized sale or by a short-term lease to a school he had established. She also said she would have wanted to know that Safavian was assisting Abramoff in accomplishing this transfer and in getting a letter from members of Congress to GSA about its plans for redeveloping the Old Post Office here, a project Abramoff wanted to help one of his clients win.
Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds asked her whether each of those pieces of information could have altered her approval. Each time, she replied, "Yes."
Individuals doing or seeking business with an agency are prohibited in most cases from giving gifts to officials of those agencies.
Safavian's request for permission did not identify Abramoff as the donor but said his friend was a lawyer and lobbyist who had no business dealings with GSA. In her opinion, Ellison recapped Safavian's assurances as saying that neither Abramoff nor his company was doing or seeking business with GSA.
Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, got Ellison to acknowledge she had not spoken directly to Safavian and assumed she got Abramoff's name, his firm's name and the assurance that neither were seeking GSA business from her boss, GSA general counsel Raymond McKenna, who had forwarded Safavian's initial request to her. But Ellison said she had not found copies of any e-mails between her and McKenna with that information.
Van Gelder also got Ellison to concede that Safavian was not required to seek advice before accepting gifts, but Ellison said GSA employees are regularly and strongly advised to do so.
Ellison told Safavian to report this free airfare on his annual financial disclosure form. Van Gelder introduced into evidence Safavian's form, on which he did not disclose the airfare.
"If he paid for it, he did not need to disclose it?" Van Gelder asked. 1/4
"Yes," Ellison replied.
Van Gelder has asserted that Safavian, who initially said he would pay only for meals, hotels and greens fees, later decided to pay for the airfare too. She has said Safavian's $3,100 check covered what Abramoff told him was his share of the chartered jet airfare and the rest.
Prosecutors have introduced details of $500-a-night hotel rooms, $100 rounds of drinks and $400 rounds of golf rounds to suggest that it was obvious that each traveler's costs were much higher.
On Tuesday, convicted lobbyist Neil Volz, who was then a partner of Abramoff's, testified that during the weeks before the trip Safavian provided insider information and advice on how Abramoff could get GSA approval for two of his projects
Volz has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for some of the behavior about which he testified. Abramoff entered guilty pleas early this year in Washington, D.C., and Florida.