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Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff appears to have had the magic touch. In a Washington controlled by his fellow Republicans, he could get almost anything he wanted done. Well, that's true, but only to a point. The first criminal trial in the Abramoff scandal is set for next month. And in the pretrial maneuvering, emails have emerged indicating that Abramoff didn't always get what he wanted, and at least in one instance he didn't even know how to get it. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
I'm standing on Pennsylvania Avenue just about midway between the Capitol and the White House. In fact, I'm standing right in front of Jack Abramoff's old restaurant, Signatures. It's closed up tight now, but if you walk out to the corner you can look up Pennsylvania Avenue, and two blocks away you see one of Jack Abramoff's visions. The Old Post Office Building, built in 1899, has a beautiful interior, has a massive bell tower. Jack Abramoff wanted to turn it into a five-star hotel, and he wanted to do it the Abramoff way, with an Indian tribe client of his as the leader of the developers.
Representative STEVEN C. LATOURETTE(Republican, Ohio): I would say it's one of the most attractive, undeveloped pieces of property in Washington, D.C.
OVERBY: That's Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio. When it comes to the Old Post Office Building, LaTourette has had some clout. In 2002 he chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the manager of federal buildings, the General Services Administration. That's why Abramoff's staff drafted a letter for LaTourette to send to the head of GSA.
But before LaTourette got the draft, Abramoff ran it past an old friend. David Safavian had worked with Abramoff as a lobbyist, now he was the GSA Chief of Staff. Abramoff e-mailed the draft to Safavian's home account and asked, does this work, or do you want it to be longer?
Safavian and Abramoff talked over the Old Post Office deal for nearly a year, in 2002 and 2003. Abramoff would ask advice, and sometimes Safavian would answer. At the same time, Abramoff invited Safavian to ballgames, dinners and a golf trip to Scotland.
On Safavian's advice, the lobbyist was pushing the Indian tribe under a federal program called Hub Zones. The e-mail suggests they thought this would give Abramoff's proposal an advantage. Congressman LaTourette says that's wrong.
Rep. LATOURETTE: That isn't what a hub zone business is. A hub zone is a small business that may come in and do, like the electrical work, or may come in and do the air conditioning. It's not a program that's designed to redevelop a piece of property.
OVERBY: LaTourette later endorsed a plan to use part of the Old Post Office complex for a new National Women's History Museum. Abramoff opined about that idea in one of his e-mails. What idiots. That would kill a five-star hotel for sure.
Four years later, GSA officials still haven't worked out what to do with the Old Post Office. They wouldn't comment for this story on grounds that it's all too closely tied to the criminal case.
That case is against David Safavian. He's charged with lying about details of the Scotland golfing trip. One key question is whether Abramoff's contacts with Safavian meet the legal definition of doing business with GSA. When prosecutors made these e-mails public last week, they called Abramoff and Safavian co-conspirators. Not so, according to Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder.
Ms. BARBARA VAN GELDER (David Safavian's lawyer): Our argument is there is no conspiracy, there's no agreement to break the law. And this is just another creative theory to try to get proof in without authenticating it.
OVERBY: Safavian's trial is due to start May 22nd. One way or another, Jack Abramoff is expected to testify in public, in detail, for the first time.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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