The Magazine

Scandal Season

The long strange trip of David Safavian--from lobbyist to defendant.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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"You've got to have ethics and integrity in everything you do. Especially here in D.C. It's such a small town that if you gain a reputation as someone who does not play by the rules, that does not do things with integrity, your career is ended."

--David Safavian

ON OCTOBER 7, the former head of federal procurement policy, David Safavian, will appear in District Court in Washington, D.C. Safavian resigned from his senior position at the Office of Management and Budget, the executive branch agency that supervises over $2 trillion in federal spending each year, on Friday, September 16. He was arrested outside his home in Alexandria, Virginia, the following Monday.

Safavian held a little-discussed but important job inside the Bush White House. The federal procurement director oversees annual purchases of goods totaling upwards of $300 billion. He is responsible for contracting and leasing. The post requires Senate approval, and Safavian was confirmed, by unanimous consent, on November 21, 2004. In the days and nights prior to his arrest, we are told, he was working feverishly to supply relief and reconstruction efforts in the Gulf.

Today he is unemployed and a defendant in a criminal probe. In the affidavit submitted for his arrest, the government alleges that Safavian:

did knowingly and corruptly influence, obstruct, impede, and endeavor to influence, obstruct, and impede the due and proper administration of the law under which a pending proceeding was being had before a department and agency of the United States; and 2) on or about March 27, 2003, in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the United States, did knowingly and willfully conceal, and cover up by a trick, scheme, and device a material fact; 3) on or about July 25, 2002, in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the United States, did knowingly and willfully conceal, and cover up by a trick, scheme, and device a material fact.

In English: Safavian is accused of obstructing justice. The alleged obstruction took place in the middle of an ongoing investigation of which Safavian was not the target. The target was--is--Safavian's mentor, Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was himself arrested in late August on unrelated charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. But Safavian's arrest suggests that federal authorities are quickly approaching the moment where they may be able to indict Abramoff again. Indict him, and possibly others.

The investigation into Abramoff--the former lobbyist, longtime conservative activist, and prodigious Republican fundraiser--is now in its eighteenth month. A federal task force composed of over 30 agents from the Justice, Treasury, and Interior departments has compiled thousands of pages of documents and made this first arrest. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led by Sen. John McCain, has held four hearings on Abramoff's activities, and is planning more. The Senate Finance Committee has begun to look into Abramoff's use of charities and nonprofit foundations to shelter profits from taxes and fund overseas trips for congressmen. And a small army of bleary-eyed journalists has devoted thousands of column inches and magazine pages and blog posts to tracing the arc of Abramoff's career, its peaks and valleys, from a footsoldier of the Reagan Revolution to action-movie producer to high-powered Washington attorney to disgraced symbol of avarice and greed.

The story is sometimes difficult to follow. The cast of characters is numerous, the details can be bewildering, and the import of it all is unknown. But it is worth the telling. From 1995 until 2004, Abramoff was a registered lobbyist at the firms Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds and, later, Greenberg Traurig. Among his most lucrative clients were six American Indian tribes--the Louisiana Coushatta, the Louisiana Chitimacha, the Mississippi Choctaw, the El Paso Tigua, the Saginaw Chippewa, and the Agua Caliente of Cahuilla--that owned and operated casinos throughout the United States. In three years, between 2001 and 2004, these tribes paid Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon a total of $82 million. The tribes paid a portion of this money directly to Abramoff's law firm, making him one of the highest-paid lobbyists in history. But most of the funds--some $66 million--were paid to Scanlon's unregulated "public affairs" firm and a series of nonprofits from which Abramoff could draw at will, including the American International Center, a "think tank" staffed by a decorated lifeguard and located a few blocks from the ocean in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (See, in these pages, Andrew Ferguson's "A Lobbyist's Progress," December 20, 2004.)