WASHINGTON – Former Bush administration official David Safavian testified Friday that he believes it was proper for him to give Jack Abramoff advice and information about two government properties the lobbyist was interested in.
Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, asked whether his ex-partner Abramoff, now at the heart of an influence-peddling scandal, was lobbying him in a series of e-mails during 2002 about the properties.
No, said Safavian, "because I wasn't the authorizing official. ... There was no action I could have taken to help Mr. Abramoff."
She asked Safavian if it wasn't abusing his position — at the time he was chief of staff at the General Services Administration — to have career government workers search out information for his friend Abramoff.
"I still don't think there's anything wrong with that," Safavian replied. "It's part of GSA's function to provide information to work with the private sector. GSA career officials get these queries all the time."
Safavian resigned as chief federal procurement officer at the White House when he was arrested last fall. He is charged with concealing from GSA and Senate investigators the assistance he provided Abramoff on the two properties in the weeks before he joined a weeklong trip arranged by Abramoff to the famed St. Andrews golf course in Scotland and on to London.
GSA and Senate investigators have testified that they would have wanted to know about the advice. Knowing about the assistance could have altered their decisions to allow him to take the trip and to close a later investigation of it, GSA officials said.
Prosecutors say the luxury-filled trip — with a chartered jet, $500-a-night hotel rooms, $400 rounds of golf and $100 rounds of drinks — had a total cost of more than $130,000 for the nine participants.
Safavian paid Abramoff $3,100 when the trip began Aug. 3, 2002. Safavian testified that he twice asked Abramoff during the trip "if we were square" on his share of the costs and Abramoff said they were.
Safavian told his lawyer he agreed to get some information about the GSA's so-called White Oak property in Maryland that Abramoff wanted to buy or lease for a school he had set up because "Jack was a friend and he asked a routine question about the agency. So I found out ... if there was any activity in GSA for disposal of this property."
Safavian ultimately advised Abramoff the only way to get the property in time for the fall semester would be to have Congress pass a bill ordering the transfer to the school.
Earlier, Neil Volz, an ex-partner of Abramoff's who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to corrupt a congressman, testified that Safavian "was the brains of this project" and told them to have a member of Congress ask for site specifications needed in the legislation because "he was a political appointee and bureaucrats at GSA wouldn't look too kindly on his involvement in this project."
Volz complained later that career GSA officials wanted to know why a staff member for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., wanted the data. Volz said they wanted to keep the transfer secret to avoid rousing opposition.
Safavian testified he told Volz he couldn't give him that detailed data but GSA is required to respond to Congress "which calls all the time."
He said he told Volz he "wanted to stay in the background" because that's the easiest response "when someone asks for something and you don't want to do it."
Safavian also acknowledged advising Abramoff about the Old Post Office near the White House which Abramoff wanted to have one of his Indian tribe clients redevelop as a luxury hotel across the street from a restaurant Abramoff owned.
He told Abramoff that tribes were eligible for preferences in contracts and advised the lobbyist: "You will need to ramp up on this" provision of law.
Safavian defended the advice on grounds Abramoff was "gathering information." He said he did not consider this doing business with GSA because "GSA had no intention of doing anything at that time. The decision on whether GSA would be allowed to redevelop had not been made."
Safavian also disputed Volz' testimony that after the FBI contacted him about the trip he told Volz, who also went along, "we all have to stick together."
"I do not recall saying that to Mr. Volz," Safavian testified.
Earlier, Safavian's wife, Jennifer, testified she felt a sense of relief about having paid $3,100 when questions about the trip were raised in 2005 by Senate investigators. "I said it's a good thing you paid for it," she recalled telling her husband.
Abramoff entered guilty pleas early this year to fraud, corruption, tax evasion and conspiracy charges in Washington and Florida.