June 21, 2006
Safavian convicted – Ney aide discounts jury's guilty verdicts
By Paul M. Krawzak
The former General Services Administration chief of staff was found guilty on four counts of obstructing justice, concealing his assistance to Abramoff in a proposed land deal and making false statements to a Senate committee that investigated Abramoff’s activities.
Safavian is the first official to be tried in the wide-ranging investigation of Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is under investigation as part of the federal probe.
Four others, including Ney’s former chief of staff-turned-lobbyist Neil Volz, also have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors.
Safavian’s trial featured testimony about a lavish golf trip to Scotland that Ney took part in and that was funded by Abramoff. Ney of Heath insists he has done nothing wrong or illegal and says he was duped by Abramoff.
In a statement after the verdict, Ney’s spokesman Brian Walsh asserted that the Safavian case “had absolutely nothing to do with Congressman Ney.”
“The congressman has said consistently from day one that he has never, at any point, engaged in any improper, unethical or illegal activity,” Walsh said. “He remains absolutely confident that the lies and deceptions of Jack Abramoff will continue to be revealed and that his name will be cleared fully at the end of the day.”
Accompanied by his wife, Jennifer, Safavian, 38, showed little reaction to the verdict, looking up at the judge and then down after the verdict was read in U.S. District Court. His wife sobbed and was comforted by a friend.
Safavian faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison on each of the counts, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 12.
The jury acquitted Safavian of one charge of obstruction of justice connected to the Senate inquiry.
Prosecutors charged that Safavian concealed his relationship with Abramoff while using his position at the GSA, which manages federal property, to provide information, assistance and other preferential treatment to Abramoff as the lobbyist sought control of two properties.
One of those who testified during the nine-day trial was Canton, O., resident Stephen Perry, who served as GSA administrator and was Safavian’s boss. Perry, who was called as a prosecution witness, described Safavian as a hardworking, effective employee.
In a statement after the verdict, government attorneys said the message was that “no one is above the law.”
“In answering questions posed by Congress and by federal agencies, public officials have the same obligation as does the public for which they serve – to tell the truth,” Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said.
Safavian’s attorney Barbara Van Gelder said she would appeal the verdict after taking exception to what she called “broad language” in a verdict form that jurors were given to clarify their deliberations.
Asked whether she thought the Justice Department was waiting to see how the Safavian trial went before deciding whether to pursue other indictments, Van Gelder cautioned against drawing any conclusions about what the government would do.
“We were not the canary down in the cave,” she said, referring to a miners’ practice of taking a bird into the mine to serve as advance warning of poisonous gases. “The Justice Department will look at every other case on its own merits.”
Taking the stand in his own defense, Safavian acknowledged helping Abramoff but denied that he was violating agency rules or breaking the law in doing so. He testified that he would have revealed his relationship with Abramoff if investigators had asked. Prosecutors described the golf trip as a reward for Safavian’s help. Safavian wrote Abramoff a check for $3,100 to pay for his share of the trip, but prosecutors said that sum understated the true costs by at least $14,000.
Safavian was among nine people who went on the August 2002 trip, which also included Ney, Volz, two other Ney congressional aides, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and another lobbyist.
Testifying in Safavian’s trial, Volz called both Safavian and Ney “champions” of lobbyists and said the Scotland trip was among the “things of value” that he and Abramoff offered to lawmakers and their staffs to secure favorable legislative action for their clients.
Ney has contested the champion label, saying Volz provided no evidence that he did favors for lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the camp of Ney’s November opponent, Democrat Zack Space of Dover, had its own view of the verdict.
“Today’s verdict substantiates the credibility of Neil Volz as a witness,” said Space campaign manager Joe Shafer.
“This is the same Neil Volz who was chief of staff to Bob Ney, was on the lavish golf trip to Scotland and has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Jack Abramoff to influence Ney.
“Abramoff, Volz and now Safavian ... the dominoes continue to fall in Bob Ney’s circle of corruption and influence-peddling.”
“Bob Ney has become a genuine Washington insider,” said Space. “His starring role in the culture of corruption comes at a high cost for working families. Big companies are getting tax breaks to send jobs overseas, families can’t afford good health insurance and gas prices continue to rise. We need a new day and a new way of doing the people’s business in Congress. I believe we should ban contributions from lobbyists as well as other perks like gifts, trips and meals. It is the pledge I have made and will keep and push for once elected to Congress.”