WASHINGTON – A top procurement official in the Bush administration abandoned his duty to the public in order to serve lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the official later concealed his conduct from investigators, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.
At the start of the first trial in the Abramoff influence peddling scandal, prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg told a jury that David Safavian provided substantial amounts of information about government-controlled properties that the lobbyist wanted for himself or his clients.
Using his official position, Safavian "worked first and foremost for a rich, powerful" lobbyist and personal friend and then he "lied and concealed in order to keep the truth from the public," Zeidenberg told the jury of 10 women and two men.
Abramoff "constantly dangled" the prospect that Safavian could return to the private sector and join Abramoff's lobbying operation, "where he would make a great deal of money and he would play a great deal of golf," Zeidenberg told the jury.
Safavian was chief of staff to the administrator of the General Services Administration, later moving to the White House and becoming administrator of the office of federal procurement policy. He left the government around the time of his arrest in the Abramoff scandal.
Justice Department prosecutors intend to use hundreds of e-mails to paint a picture of corruption in the Safavian case and apparently won't call confessed felon Abramoff to the witness stand.
While prosecutors try to bury Safavian in e-mails he exchanged with Abramoff, Safavian's lawyers plan to depict the Justice Department as overreaching in bringing charges against the procurement official.
With several members of Congress under investigation, prosecutors appear to be holding Abramoff back for bigger cases they are trying to pull together. Keeping Abramoff away from the courtroom for now also means the disgraced lobbyist won't be subjected to cross-examination by Safavian's lawyers, who are unlikely to take the risky step of calling Abramoff themselves.
A five-count grand jury indictment says Safavian concealed from investigators his assistance to Abramoff, who wanted to acquire part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Silver Spring, Md., and to lease a downtown Washington landmark, the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Safavian's lawyers say prosecution excesses began early in the probe when investigators were looking for Abramoff associates who might be able to implicate the lobbyist in wrongdoing.
Prosecutors believe Safavian was in that category, so they brought a weak case against him in an effort to pressure him into turning on his old friend, the defense has said.
Safavian chose to fight rather than cooperate. And his possible cooperation against Abramoff became a moot point when the lobbyist entered guilty pleas early this year in Washington, D.C., and Florida.
The constant e-mail traffic between the two men will put Abramoff's aggressive tactics on display, showing how he badgered Safavian for information about the properties while showering his longtime friend with invitations, including a trip to Scotland that Safavian accepted.
Abramoff wanted the Maryland property for a private school he founded. He sought a lease of the Old Post Office for some of his Indian tribal clients who wanted to develop it as a luxury hotel.
Abramoff is now the government's main weapon in an investigation aimed primarily at Capitol Hill.