WASHINGTON – A federal court jury in the first trial of the Abramoff lobbying scandal was sent home four hours after beginning deliberations Tuesday so the judge could consider whether to dismiss a juror for misconduct.
Former Bush administration official David Safavian is charged with concealing from ethics officials and investigators that he assisted Republican influence-peddler Jack Abramoff's efforts to obtain two government properties.
The jury of 10 women and two men had selected a foreperson but had not even gotten their written copies of jury instructions nor begun any substantive deliberations when the problem arose.
Prosecutors argued that a female juror should be dismissed because she disregarded the judge's instructions on several occasions and told other jurors Tuesday she had discussed the costs of a golf trip to Scotland with her father. Safavian's expenses for the August 2002 trip arranged by Abramoff have been an issue in trial testimony.
The defense opposed replacing the juror with an alternate and said U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman should just give jurors a stiff warning to stop all outside discussions.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who questioned the juror, decided he wanted to study similar cases before ruling on the government's dismissal motion. He said he would rule Tuesday morning, and asked the jury to return then.
He also denied the jury's request for a dictionary and told the jurors that if they needed definitions or had other questions to ask him by note.
Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist and former business partner of Safavian, was never called to testify, a point Safavian's defense attorney emphasized in closing arguments Monday.
The defense characterized the trial as a clear case of prosecutorial excess, but the government depicted Safavian as an ethically challenged public servant trying to serve two masters.
As the General Services Administration's chief of staff, Safavian "was appointed by the president to serve the people of the United States, but he chose instead to serve Jack Abramoff," Justice Department lawyer Nathaniel Edmonds told the jury on Monday.
Prosecutors seized on dozens of e-mails in which Abramoff and Safavian exchanged information about two pieces of GSA-controlled property that Abramoff wanted for himself or his lobbying clients. Many of the e-mails were written around the time that Safavian accepted a weeklong trans-Atlantic golfing jaunt from Abramoff.
Safavian lawyer Barbara Van Gelder said Safavian "was trying to do the right thing" when he paid $3,100 for the trip and got ethics approval for the weeklong golfing excursion to Scotland and London organized by Abramoff.
"He told everybody about this trip" including his boss, Van Gelder said.
Edmonds said Safavian revealed nothing about the three-day London leg of the trip or the extent of the lavish accommodations. Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said if Safavian had told the truth, "there would have been questions" about who was paying for it and what business Abramoff had with GSA. Safavian told the ethics officer that Abramoff did all his work on Capitol Hill, a statement Van Gelder said is "literally true."
She said the government failed to prove its case by not summoning Abramoff to testify.
"Where's Jack?" Van Gelder asked the jury in final arguments.
"If the government does not call Jack Abramoff they have not met their burden," Van Gelder said.
Prosecutors gave no reason for not calling Abramoff, who would likely be a witness if the Justice Department assembles criminal cases against any members of Congress. The disgraced lobbyist has pleaded guilty to crimes in federal courts in Washington, D.C., and in Miami.
Van Gelder said the prosecution has mischaracterized the evidence, making it appear that Abramoff wanted the landmark Old Post Office for some of his Indian tribal clients in order to redevelop the underused facility as a five-star hotel.
"It was the GSA that wanted a five-star hotel," Van Gelder said.
Van Gelder said the government has insinuated that Abramoff was operating at Safavian's agency almost as if the lobbyist "had a GSA annex," a characterization she said was simply not correct. She said Abramoff's questions to Safavian about GSA-controlled property in Maryland were straightforward inquiries made of a longtime friend. The lobbyist was looking for property "for his kid's school," said Van Gelder, referring to a private school founded by Abramoff.
The government says the defendant told lies to hide his relationship with the lobbyist. Safavian is accused of three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstructing investigations by the GSA's inspector general and a Senate committee chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The trial is the first arising from the Abramoff scandal.