Weighing the Effects of the Safavian Verdict
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
A federal jury has convicted former Bush appointee David Safavian. He was the first defendant to stand trial in the corruption probe involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Safavian was charged with five counts of lying and obstructing justice and was convicted on four of them.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
Much of the trial was about a 2002 golf junket Scotland. Jack Abramoff took David Safavian and several others to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. Safavian later told investigators he paid his own way with a $3,100 check to Abramoff. But that couldn't explain the $92,000 tab for the charter jet or the $500 a night hotel bills.
Neil Volz was on the trip, too. He worked for Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, and then for Abramoff. This spring he struck a plea deal with prosecutors. Volz testified against Safavian, saying that as a lobbyist, he paid one of Safavian's $400 greens fees.
Yesterday's verdict doesn't bode well for another golfer on that trip, Bob Ney.
Mr. STANLEY BRAND (Attorney, Washington, D.C.): I'm not sure whether there is anything further the government is waiting for.
OVERBY: Stanley Brand is a long time ethics lawyer in Washington. He says the government seems to be preparing to charge Ney.
Mr. BRAND: They now have used one of his aides as a chief witness to testify about this now famous golf trip to Scotland, and I think that will be next in their order of business.
OVERBY: Already, Ney has been mentioned in guilty pleas by Abramoff and three others. He also turns up in e-mails by Jack Abramoff. In the weeks before the golf trip, Abramoff wrote that Ney agreed to slip language into a bill to benefit one of Abramoff's clients. And just like Neil Volz, Jack Abramoff's e-mails got a test run against David Safavian.
Before and after the Scotland trip, Safavian and Abramoff had extensive e-mail conversations. Safavian was Chief of Staff at the General Services Administration. He was also privately guiding Abramoff on two possible deals with GSA. Prosecutors never called Abramoff to the stand. Outside the courthouse yesterday, Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said the e-mails made him a big presence anyway.
Ms. BARBARA VAN GELDER (Attorney): It's clear that the emails certainly played a very large - very - maybe more important role than they should have.
OVERBY: Ney has always said he was duped by Abramoff. Yesterday, his spokesman said the Safavian case has nothing to do with Ney. He said Ney is confident that the facts will come out and he will be vindicated.
Ney isn't the only lawmaker to be linked with Abramoff. Senator Conrad Burns worked with the well-connected lobbyist on funding for an Indian school. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay took overseas trips with Abramoff; and there are others. Many on Capitol Hill fear a broader investigation. That may help explain the firestorm a month ago when FBI agents raided the Congressional office of Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson. Jefferson is suspected of, but not charged with, soliciting bribes. He is now the first lawmaker in U.S. history to have his Congressional office searched by federal law enforcement.
Law professor Carl Tobias, at the University of Richmond, says that if the Justice Department targets members of Congress, prosecutors again might say they need to look for evidence on Capitol Hill.
Professor CARL TOBIAS (Law Professor, University of Richmond): And so it may lead you back to the same place and the same tensions that we see with the Jefferson circumstances.
OVERBY: Of course, the Justice Department isn't commenting on any of this. But Bob Ney is hardly the only member of Congress with a defense attorney on retainer.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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