Appeals court overturns Safavian convictions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia today struck down the convictions of David Safavian on charges that stemmed from the Jack Abramoff scandal. The court reversed two of the former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator's convictions entirely and remanded three more for a possible new trial.

Safavian was convicted in June 2006 on four felony counts of lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. The appeals court threw out the convictions on one count and on one sub-section of another count. It vacated the remaining convictions with the possibility of a new trial.

Safavian's attorney Barbara Van Gelder said Safavian has already been ruined by the three-year ordeal, even if the Justice Department chooses not to retry him.

"This is a town where once you’re persona non grata, you’re persona non grata," she said. "He knows who his friends are and they’ve stood by him. But he’s been disbarred. He’s lost his livelihood. He’s lost his reputation. And he’s broke.”

The charges arose from a golfing trip that Safavian took with former lobbyist Abramoff in 2002, when Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration. Safavian had sought the opinion of the GSA ethics officer on whether he could accept Abramoff's invitation. Safavian said Abramoff was chartering a plane for a group, but that Safavian would be paying all of his other expenses himself, and the GSA ethics officer approved the trip.

Safavian also told the ethics officer that Abramoff had no business with GSA, although Abramoff had earlier asked Safavian for information about two GSA-controlled properties.

In overturning the convictions, the court ruled that the trial judge erred in excluding expert testimony that would have supported Safavian's argument that having business with GSA meant having or seeking contracts or having an ongoing business relationship with the agency, not making general inquiries. The court also found that Safavian's voluntary consultation with the GSA ethics officer did not obligate him to disclose "all relevant information" or face prosecution, as the government alleged.

Van Gelder said the prosecution's argument about the obligation to disclose everything in making an ethics inquiry turns such a consultation into "a sword instead of a shield.”

“I kept saying to the court, who in their right mind would ask for an ethics opinion after this?" she said. "Oftentimes people ask questions before they know everything.”

The trial court sentenced Safavian to 18 months in prison, but he has been free pending the appeal.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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