News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Washington Sand Trap - Newsweek Business -

A golf outing trips up a widening circle of power brokers.

By Michael Isikoff

Oct. 3, 2005 issue - David Safavian wasn't expecting visitors. A relatively senior White House official—he oversaw federal contracts for the Office of Management and Budget—the 38-year-old Safavian had been working around the clock on Katrina relief. But at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 19, a team of FBI agents showed up at his house and arrested him. The Feds wanted to know if Safavian would be willing to cooperate in an ongoing corruption probe surrounding his friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff. According to Safavian's lawyer, no deal was struck. Safavian was then charged with lying to the FBI and obstructing an investigation.

Safavian's arrest is the most dramatic sign yet that the long-running Justice probe is gathering momentum. Safavian's misfortune, one shared by many in Washington, was his relationship with Abramoff, the brash GOP superlobbyist known for his close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff, recently indicted in Miami on wire-fraud charges (he pleaded not guilty), stands accused in Senate testimony of cheating his Indian-casino clients out of tens of millions of dollars in fees that he allegedly diverted to personal and political causes. Safavian's dealings with Abramoff, and new documents reviewed by NEWSWEEK, may add to the unseemly picture.

Cool and cocky, Safavian had been one of Abramoff's lobbying partners. He joined the Bush administration in 2002, as chief of staff of the General Services Administration. According to the Feds' complaint, Abramoff invited Safavian to participate in a trip to Scotland that summer to play golf at the world-famous St. Andrews course. Total tab: $100,000. Safavian received prior approval from his agency's ethics officer. But the Feds say he had neglected to mention that Abramoff at the time was seeking to lease property from the GSA and had sought Safavian's help. When a whistle-blower's complaint led to an inquiry, Safavian falsely told the GSA inspector general, and later the FBI, that Abramoff had "no business" before the agency, the Feds charge. (Safavian's lawyer denied that Abramoff's leasing efforts constituted "business" before the GSA and noted that Safavian reimbursed Abramoff $3,100 for the trip. Abramoff's lawyer declined to comment.)

Safavian, it turns out, isn't the only one who could get tripped up by Abramoff's golfing jaunt. According to a cache of Abramoff's e-mails released last year, the lobbyist planned the trip as a favor for Ohio Rep. Robert Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee. In a June 2002 e-mail to one of his Indian-casino clients, Abramoff noted that "our friend [Ney]" had "asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff." At the time, Ney had agreed to back legislation that would help Abramoff's client, the Tigua tribe of Texas, to reopen a casino. It is against House ethics rules for members to take trips paid for by lobbyists. On a House disclosure form, Ney reported that the Scotland trip was sponsored by a conservative think tank, and that its "official" purpose included giving a "speech to Scottish Parliamentarians" and visiting the British Parliament during a London stopover.

But the Feds' complaint against Safavian says it was Abramoff, not the think tank, that arranged the outing, which is referred to only as a "golf trip." And other records reviewed by NEWSWEEK raise further questions about Ney's account. An "external liaison" registry of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh shows that other members of the U.S. Congress visited that month. But there is no record of Ney's doing so. In fact, the Parliament was in recess when Ney was in Scotland, so "there is no way" he could have addressed the body, said Sally Coyne, a Parliament spokeswoman. A press officer for the House of Commons in London said the British Parliament was also in recess.

Ney's spokesman, Brian Walsh, said that the congressman "wasn't giving a formal speech." Ney "met with a number of folks over there. I don't have any names." Ney has also said that it was Abramoff who told him the trip was being sponsored by the think tank. Walsh added that Ney has offered to review the matter with the House ethics committee.

That could take a while. The panel has been deadlocked for months because of partisan sniping and hasn't taken up any of the many ethics issues surrounding Abramoff's dealings with other members, most notably DeLay. But if Safavian is any indication, the Feds, who haven't yet turned public attention on Ney or other members of Congress, may not be willing to wait much longer.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


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