WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the convictions of the George W. Bush administration's top procurement official in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.
A three-judge panel rejected the arguments of David Safavian, who was convicted of lying to investigators during the investigation of the Republican lobbyist.
Safavian's lawyers argued that Justice Department lawyers engaged in prosecutorial vindictiveness against their client, who went through two trials. Safavian argued that his alleged lies were not relevant to the investigation and that a federal judge improperly admitted evidence about the cost of a private jet Abramoff had chartered to take Safavian and others on a lavish golfing trip to Scotland.
In both his trials, prosecutors presented evidence that Abramoff obtained information from Safavian about government property the lobbyist wanted to acquire. Safavian's 2006 conviction on similar charges was overturned on appeal, leading to a retrial.
In Friday's ruling, the appeals court said the government made a legitimate decision to add a criminal charge at the second trial alleging that Safavian lied to an FBI agent.
On a separate issue, "so long as Safavian's false statements were capable of influencing the course of the FBI's investigation," those statements were relevant, the appeals court panel ruled.
The appeals court also agreed with the federal judge in the case, Paul Friedman, who concluded that the jury had enough evidence before it on the cost of the Scotland trip to reach a verdict.
The three judges in Friday's ruling for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit were Douglas Ginsburg, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican; Janice Rogers Brown, appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican; and Harry Edwards, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
Safavian, 43, headed federal procurement as a top executive in the Office of Management and Budget and earlier served the Bush administration as chief of staff at the General Services Administration, the government's housekeeping agency.
Safavian and Abramoff were longtime friends. In 2002, Abramoff began asking Safavian for information about two GSA properties Abramoff wanted to acquire, and the lobbyist invited Safavian on the Scotland trip. Before heading overseas, Safavian told the GSA's ethics officer that Abramoff had no business before the GSA. Based on an anonymous tip, the FBI and the GSA's inspector general began investigating.
At his first trial, Safavian was barred from introducing expert testimony that the term "doing business with" referred to outstanding contracts or an exchange of property or services for money. Abramoff had neither. The judge said such testimony would confuse the jury. The appeals court sent the case back for a new trial.
At his second trial, Safavian was convicted of lying to an FBI agent, to the GSA's ethics officer and on his government financial disclosure form, and convicted of obstructing the probe by the GSA's inspector general.
Safavian was among the highest-ranking officials brought down in the Abramoff scandal. Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was the only lawmaker charged in the scandal although others, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; former Reps. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.; and former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., were investigated.
Overall, 21 people have been convicted in the scandal, including lobbyists and public officials in connection with the activities of Abramoff and his associates. Abramoff himself pleaded guilty to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in 2006 and cooperated with the probe of lesser figures. Last June, he was released from prison to a halfway house and then home confinement. He worked on marketing for a Baltimore pizzeria until his term under supervision ended in December.
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