Canton Repository

May 25, 2006

HOF boss testifies as corruption trial opens

BY PAUL M. KRAWZAK
COPLEY WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

WASHINGTON Former General Services Administration head Stephen A. Perry praised his one-time chief of staff David Safavian as a hardworking, industrious aide who never pressured him on behalf of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff as the first trial emerging from a federal corruption probe began Wednesday.

Perry, a longtime Canton resident, led off as the prosecution’s first witness in the trial of Safavian, a former administration official who is charged with lying to investigators and obstructing justice in connection with his participation in a lavish golf trip to Scotland organized by Abramoff in August 2002.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Heath, who also went on the trip, is under investigation by federal authorities as part of a continuing Justice Department probe into bribery, corruption and fraud involving lobbyists, lawmakers and their staff.

Abramoff and several associates, including former Ney aide Neil Volz, have alleged in plea agreements that Ney did legislative favors for their clients in exchange for the free trip to Scotland, free meals, tickets to sporting events, campaign contributions and other benefits.

Ney has not been charged, and he insists he did nothing wrong or illegal.

GOLF IN SCOTLAND

The opening testimony offered the first public look into Perry’s relationship with Safavian and any possible connection he may have had to the Scotland outing or Abramoff’s unsuccessful efforts to gain control over two plots of federal land administered by the GSA, a federal property management and procurement agency.

A longtime executive at the Timken Co. before President Bush nominated him to run the GSA in 2001, Perry, dressed in a greenish plaid suit and pale yellow tie, remained calm and even while answering questions.

He drew a few chuckles early on when federal Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg asked him whether, in his new job as president and executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he got to hobnob with the “greatest football players of all time.”

“That’s absolutely the case, yes,” Perry dryly responded.

On the witness stand for an hour, Perry recalled discussing the golf trip to Scotland with Safavian ahead of time, when his freshly arrived chief of staff wondered if he could take time off for a vacation.

But Perry said he had no knowledge that Abramoff had been carrying on a conversation with Safavian via e-mail about the lobbyist’s interest in acquiring use of GSA land for a Jewish school established by Abramoff and the development of a luxury hotel.

Among the charges against Safavian, 38, is that when he sought an opinion from a GSA ethics officer about whether he could accept a free trip to Scotland, he “falsely stated” that Abramoff had no business with the GSA and was not seeking to do business with the agency.

The ethics opinion cleared Safavian to accept the all-expenses-paid trip. But Safavian ended up writing Abramoff a check for $3,100 to cover his share of the expenses — a sum that prosecutors say does not come close to covering his real costs.

TIES TO ABRAMOFF?

Volz, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy as part of an effort to corrupt Ney and others, also went on the trip and is expected to share more details on it when he testifies as early as today. Ney, two members of his staff, and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed also went to Scotland.

On Wednesday, Perry was asked whether Safavian ever asked him to “do anything” for Abramoff. “No, never,” he responded.

In opening statements earlier in the day, Zeidenberg accused Safavian of lying, concealing and misleading when investigators questioned him about the trip and his dealings with Abramoff.

Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, countered that the evidence would show that Safavian never lied and “was always open about his friendship” with Safavian.

The testimony also shed light on Perry’s knowledge of Abramoff, who was seen as one of the most successful lobbyists in Washington.

Perry said he first recalled meeting Abramoff at a going-away party for an outgoing chief of staff who was being replaced by Safavian. The party was held at Signatures, Abramoff’s Capitol Hill restaurant.

Prosecutors allege that Abramoff used the restaurant to supply free drinks and meals to Ney, his staff and others he sought to influence as part of a scheme to corrupt government officials.

Once when Perry and his wife were dining at Signatures with friends from Ohio, Perry said, Abramoff offered to pick up the tab. “We declined to accept his gracious offer,” he said.

Perry said he golfed with Abramoff just once, but he added that Abramoff did not bring up “anything related to GSA or business at that time.”

And he noted that he himself was invited on the Scotland junket, though he added that he was unsure whether the invitation, which came from Safavian, was serious.

Perry said he was deterred by his expectation that the trip would be expensive, and also felt it would be “not appropriate” for him to go. He attributed his reluctance to “my own conservative view about how one conducts oneself” as a public official.

The trial resumes today and is expected to last at least a week.