Abramoff Fraud Probe Leads to Arrest of Budget Official

The arrest of Bush administration budget official David Safavian is the latest in a widening web of arrests and indictments related to controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Under investigation for fraud, Abramoff has had close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other high-profile conservatives.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A scandal revolving around Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff reached into the Bush administration this week. The FBI arrested a presidential appointee to the White House Office of Management and Budget. This latest chapter in Abramoff's saga hints at just how well-connected he was around Washington. Here's NPR's Peter Overby with details.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Back in 2001, Jack Abramoff offered one of his lobbying clients a special reduced fee of $100,000 per month. In an eight-page letter he explained why this was such a bargain. The bottom line, quote, "We have very strong relationships with all of the potential decision-makers in both the administration and Congress."

Mr. KEN GROSS (Ethics Lawyer): This case has lots of tentacles, and it reaches out in many, many directions.

OVERBY: Washington ethics lawyer Ken Gross, who's worked for politicians of both parties, says that when the FBI arrested David Safavian early Monday morning, it changed the shape of the Abramoff probe.

Mr. GROSS: Up until now, this was a story about some members of Congress. It has now become a story about some members of Congress and now at least one individual and perhaps others who are in the Bush administration.

OVERBY: Safavian is an old lobbying colleague of Abramoff. The charges stem from a golfing trip they took in 2002 along with Republican Congressman Bob Ney and a few others. They played the fabled St. Andrews course in Scotland. Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, says her client paid his own way.

Ms. BARBARA VAN GELDER (Safavian Lawyer): Mr. Safavian did not take a gift from his friend the lobbyist. In fact, he went on the trip but he paid for the trip himself. So there is no regulation or law that precludes anybody in the government from associating with their friends.

OVERBY: In 2002, Safavian was chief of staff for the General Services Administration, the agency that handles procurement and real estate for most of the federal government. An FBI affidavit alleges that Safavian told GSA ethics officials that Abramoff was not lobbying the agency, but that Abramoff actually was working two deals with Safavian himself. In one of them, one of Abramoff's clients, an Indian tribe, wanted to redevelop Washington's historic old post office building near the White House. In the other, Abramoff himself wanted surplus federal land for a private school he had set up. The charges against Safavian are not that he took a free trip, but that he lied about the trip and obstructed the investigation. Safavian has resigned from the administration.

The Washington allegations involving Abramoff have been simmering for two years. Prominent among those linked to him have been members of Congress, notably Bob Ney and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who have both asked for House ethics inquiries, and Senator Conrad Burns. Also coming under questioning were prominent political operatives, conservative strategist Grover Norquist and Republican consultant Ralph Reed. But with Safavian's arrest, there's a sense that the case is widening and the stakes are getting higher. William Canfield is a political ethics lawyer in Washington.

Mr. WILLIAM CANFIELD (Ethics Lawyer): I don't think the department normally spends its resources this way to go after a small fish like David Safavian and, you know, relatively small fish like Jack Abramoff.

OVERBY: Abramoff's base of support was always among House Republicans. But as Republican Congressman Ray LaHood said yesterday, the party has no game plan for dealing with the case or its political fallout. As for those lawmakers without Abramoff connections, LaHood just said, `We're grateful we never met the guy.' Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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