Ex-White House Aide Guilty in Abramoff Cover-Up

A former White House official has been found guilty of covering up his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. David Safavian resigned his White House post last year. He was convicted on four of five felony counts of lying and obstruction of justice.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A former White House official connected to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff was found guilty today. David Safavian was convicted of lying and obstruction. He used to be the Federal Government's top procurement officer. The trial centered on Safavian's assistance to Abramoff in a government owned real estate deal and on a luxury golf trip to Scotland. Here to give us the details, is NPR Justice Reporter, Ari Shapiro. And Ari, tell us more about what Safavian was found guilty of.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Well he went on this golf trip in 2002, as you mentioned, with Jack Abramoff; Bob Ney, the Republican Congressman from Ohio; political consultant Ralph Reed. And at the time, Abramoff was doing business with the General Service Administration, or rather, he was trying to get business through the GSA, which is where Safavian worked. Abramoff was trying to get a building turned into a luxury hotel for one of the Indian tribes he worked with, and he was also working on a project involving schools that Abramoff dealt with. Now going on golf trips and working with lobbyists is not a crime, but lying about it is. Safavian told investigators that he was not doing business with Abramoff when he went on the golf trip. He also said that he paid for the trip.

In court, he actually produced a check for just over three thousand dollars, made out to Jack Abramoff. Since the trip cost more than fourteen thousand dollars per person, it's perhaps not surprising that the jury found Safavian's argument unconvincing.

BRAND: Hmm. And Abramoff is cooperating with prosecutors, I understand. What was his role in this trial?

SHAPIRO: He actually had no role in this trial, which is a little surprising. A lot of observers had expected that Abramoff would testify. Safavian's lawyers tried to use Abramoff's absence to their advantage. They argued, the fact that he didn't testify, showed a gaping hole that prosecutors were trying to hide something. But clearly, the jury didn't buy that argument since they handed down the conviction on four of five counts today.

BRAND: Right, and the defense could have called him too, and they didn't.

SHAPIRO: Indeed. Neither side chose to call Abramoff, and it's not entirely clear why that was. Perhaps they just wanted to keep this case very simple and narrow.

BRAND: Well this golf trip sounds pretty familiar. Wasn't House Majority Leader Tom Delay on a golf trip with Jack Abramoff, as well, to Scotland?

SHAPIRO: He was. That was a different golf trip. The Safavian trip took place in 2002; Delay went on a golf trip to Scotland with Abramoff in 2000. Investigators have been looking into the circumstances surrounding that trip, but they haven't filed any charges in connection with that outing. Delay's former Deputy Chief of Staff is one of the people who's pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal but Delay says he had nothing to do with it. Delay, of course, stepped down from Congress earlier this month, after being indicted on charges that were unconnected to the Abramoff scandal.

BRAND: And Ari, how big a win is this for prosecutors? Is Safavian a big fish?

SHAPIRO: Well, the fact that the first trial coming out of this investigation resulted in a guilty verdict has got to make prosecutors happy. Safavian may not be the biggest fish in this investigation, but every guilty plea and every conviction that prosecutors get, gives investigators another ally. Safavian's sentencing is scheduled for October 12th, which means he's now someone who may help investigators in order to get a lighter jail sentence. You can add Safavian to the list of four others who have already pleaded guilty, including Jack Abramoff, and that makes investigators and prosecutor's jobs easier going forward.

BRAND: Well speaking of going forward, who's next?

SHAPIRO: It's impossible to say for certain, but there are some clues. The star witness at the Safavian trial, was the former chief of staff for Republican Congressman Bob Ney, of Ohio, who was on the 2002 golfing expedition. Bob Ney was also the only Congressman identified in the Abramoff indictment. He's not been charged with any crime, but the testimony and documents that have been made public so far, have got to make Ney uncomfortable.

BRAND: All right, well thank you Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome Madeleine.

BRAND: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY, from NPR News.

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