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Ex-Bush official found guilty of lying about lobbyist Abramoff

Columbus Dispatch, June 20, 2006:
The first trial stemming from the misdeeds of now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- which included testimony accusing Rep. Bob Ney of wrongdoing -- has resulted in a guilty verdict for former Bush administration official David Safavian.

Safavian, a former chief of staff at the U.S. General Services Administration, was convicted this morning on four of five felony counts of lying and obstruction on the fifth day of jury deliberation.

Safavian's offenses include covering up help he gave to Abramoff involving government-owned property and a lavish August 2002 golfing trip to Scotland organized by Abramoff whose participants included Ney and two of the Heath Republican's aides. The weeklong jaunt featured travel by private jet, $100 rounds of drinks, expensive meals and hotels and $400 rounds of golf.

Also on the trip was Neil Volz, a former Ney chief of staff who went to work for Abramoff in early 2002 and who like Abramoff has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. Volz testified that Ney was a "champion" on Capitol Hill for Abramoff and his clients in much the same way Safavian aided Abramoff from the GSA, which is in charge of managing federal buildings and properties.

Amid the spiraling scandal, Safavian resigned from another Bush administration job last year as the federal government's chief procurement officer. Ney is under federal investigation for his ties to Abramoff, and has been cited in plea bargains reached by Volz, Abramoff and others.

Ney proclaims he is innocent and was duped in several instances by Abramoff.

What Safavian, who awaits sentencing, was convicted on does not involve the direct allegations Volz and others have made about their dealings with Ney.But the Safavian conviction, and the role Volz played in the trial, is not good news for Ney if the federal government pursues a case against the lawmaker, said a prominent criminal defense attorney in Washington.

Stanley Brand, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said shortly after the jury's decision that the verdict bolsters Volz's credibility "to the extent that Volz becomes a witness against Bob Ney."

Brand added that the verdict is yet another blow against Ney.

"How many strikes can he get before the (Justice) Department pulls the trigger? This isn't a directly related case except it involves the trip and now the trip has been testified to and a jury convicted Safavian for lying about it. It's another building block. They already have a foundation."

The jury found Safavian guilty of obstructing the work of the General Services Administration inspector general and of lying to a GSA ethics official. It also convicted him of lying to the inspector general's office and making a false statement to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He was acquitted of a charge of obstructing the committee's investigation.

"The reality is that this case had absolutely nothing to do with Congressman Ney," said Brian Walsh, Ney's spokesman, in a statement after the verdict was released. "The congressman has said consistently from day one that he has never, at any point, engaged in any improper, unethical or illegal activity.

"He remains absolutely confident that the lies and deception of Jack Abramoff will continue to be revealed and that his name will be cleared fully at the end of the day."

During the Safavian trial, prosecutors asked Volz to name whom he admitted conspiring with to commit so-called honest services fraud, including the giving of gifts to Ney such as free meals and the Scotland trip in exchange for legislative favors for Abramoff and his clients.

Volz listed Ney, Abramoff and two other lobbyists who worked for Abramoff and who also have pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Volz is awaiting sentencing. He could get up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but hopes by cooperating to get a much more lenient sentence, possibly to escape jail time by receiving probation.

Abramoff did not testify at the Safavian trial, but Abramoff too has named Ney in his plea bargain. Abramoff is expected to play a prominent role if prosecutors indict any members of Congress or lawmakers' staff.

But Ney spokesman Walsh said Volz and Abramoff lack credibility and are trying to lessen penalties they face.

"Like Jack Abramoff, Neil Volz is clearly under a great deal of pressure from prosecutors to justify his plea agreement and to limit the amount of time he has to spend in jail, but the problem with his characterization of the congressman is that it is at complete odds with the actual facts," said Walsh, at the time.

During the Safavian trial, prosecutors said that Safavian tried to help Abramoff obtain federal land known as White Oak in a Washington suburb for a school Abramoff had started. Safavian denied wrongdoing. His attorney tried to show that Volz didn't have personal knowledge that Safavian received improper gifts on the Scotland trip, noting that her client had reimbursed Abramoff $3,100 for the trip.

Prosecutors said Safavian also gave Abramoff inside information about a project to redevelop the Old Post Office in downtown Washington.

Safavian took the stand for two days in his own defense. He acknowledged some misjudgments and forwarding Abramoff some insider information, such as the position of other government officials on the GSA properties, but attributed these errors to his inexperience. Basically he maintained he simply gave generally available information to an old friend who was inquiring about government property that the GSA had not even decided what to do with yet.