"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."
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.)
No one is sure exactly what services Abramoff and Scanlon performed in exchange for such high fees. The probable answer is as few as possible. Only a small portion of the money went to actual lobbying of congressmen, and that lobbying mostly was unsuccessful. Abramoff's main accomplishment seems to have been the construction of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine of self-dealing meant to line his pockets and those of a small group of friends. What has attracted the attention of the national media is that the individuals who make up this coterie are prominent figures in the capital's Republican establishment. The money-grubbing scheming uncovered so far has revealed that establishment to be all too similar to those that came before it.
You will recognize the names. One is former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, who turned to his old College Republicans pal Jack Abramoff for help when he founded his consulting firm, Century Strategies, in 1997. Abramoff paid Reed to foment "grassroots support" to shut down casinos that took business away from those paying Abramoff. Reed's work has become an issue in Georgia, where he is running for lieutenant governor. (See my "A Decade of Reed," June 27, 2005.) He has pledged to cooperate with the Senate. But his close associate, antitax activist Grover Norquist, has refused to disclose his group's tax returns. Norquist, whose own lobbying shop represented tribal clients in the late '90s, was the recipient of Abramoff's clients' largesse in the form of sizable donations to his group, Americans for Tax Reform. Meanwhile, because House rules forbid lobbyists from funding a congressman's travel, the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into whether Abramoff improperly paid for junkets that former majority leader Tom DeLay took to Scotland and elsewhere. (House rules also forced DeLay to step down last week as majority leader, a position he had held since 2003, after a Texas grand jury indicted him on unrelated campaign-finance conspiracy charges.) Representative Bob Ney is under scrutiny for several statements he entered into the congressional record seemingly at Abramoff's request, several trips he took with Abramoff, and an amendment he attached to a 2002 election reform bill that would have directly benefited one of Abramoff's gaming clients. Today Ney says he was "duped." And Senator Conrad Burns of Montana is under pressure to return the hundreds of thousands of dollars Abramoff and his clients donated to his campaign coffers over the years. He hasn't.
These men are famous, at least in Washington. But there are less-famous others ensnared in Abramoff's web. Congressional underlings often worked with Abramoff to secure favors and carve out loopholes for his clients. They watched Washington Wizards basketball games from the lobbyist's skybox at the MCI Center. They ate dinner at the lobbyist's chic downtown restaurant, Signatures. Some seem to have found the lifestyle so appealing, in fact, that they became lobbyists themselves.
Abramoff's partners and associates occupy positions throughout the executive branch. An ex-lobbyist on the Mariana Islands account--the archipelago, a U.S. territory that is exempt from this country's immigration and minimum wage laws, is a frequent target of labor and human rights groups--works as an assistant secretary at the department of labor. President Bush has nominated a former Abramoff client and ex-Tyco legal counsel to be deputy attorney general. Abramoff's executive assistant at Preston Gates and Greenberg Traurig went on to a similar job with presidential adviser Karl Rove. It's important to note, of course, that none of these individuals has been accused of doing anything illegal. But an Abramoff connection has suddenly become the fastest way to invite press scrutiny and Democratic criticism.
Both are now visited daily upon the White House. When Safavian was arrested, the inquiry into Abramoff shifted from Capitol Hill, where it spent much of the spring and early summer, to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where it will remain indefinitely. The administration must think its luck is washing away. Washington is flooded with scandal. A flawed federal disaster response, accusations of executive branch cronyism, an ongoing grand jury investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press two years ago, a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into the Senate majority leader's finances, the DeLay indictment, further investigations into the House leadership--all of these stories are rapidly draining the Republicans' vigor.
But the tale of Abramoff and the Indians looms above the rest. Think of it as a metanarrative, or an epic, or, if you prefer, an opera buffa. Over the past year and a half, the characters have been introduced, the major plotlines initiated. The curtain has fallen on one act, and is about to rise for the next. The scene is K Street, where lobbyists ply their trade. City constables cast wary glances at one another as they prepare to make their move. And a previously marginal character who has lurked in the background--a sort of lobbyist Forrest Gump--is about to step to center stage.
Enter David Hossein Safavian.
HE IS 38 YEARS OLD, born in Michigan, schooled in Missouri. According to his now deleted biography on the White House website, Safavian went to St. Louis University, and graduated fifth in his class at the Detroit College of Law. The year was 1993. He was drawn to politics at an early age, it seems, and interned in a couple of Republican congressional offices while in college, and worked on Republican congressman Bill Schuette's failed Senate campaign in 1990, and moved to Washington to take a job at KPMG after law school. He earned a certificate in tax law from Georgetown in 1994.
That was the year the Republican party, led by Newt Gingrich, captured the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, and promised a sea change in American government. A fierce and uncompromising conservatism dove head-first into governing. The Republicans, it was said, would change the way business was done in Washington. They would slash budgets, eliminate a few cabinet departments, more or less drain the swamp of special interests and scandal. It was "a new order," Republican representative Jim Nussle proclaimed. Armed with his degrees and résumé, Safavian made an attractive footsoldier for the Revolution. The question was where he would start.
The Hill beckoned. But so did the more lucrative private sector. To cope with the influx of Republican lawmakers, the capital's numerous lobbying shops had just begun to search for lawyers with the right--meaning, the Right--credentials. Safavian was the type of guy they were looking for. He joined the Seattle-based law firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in 1995. There he was assigned to the lobbying team headed by Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff was a recent recruit to the firm himself, having spent the better part of six years struggling to make a name in Hollywood as a movie producer. The Republican landslide had summoned him back to the nation's capital, where he used the connections he had forged as head of College Republicans in the early eighties to start a lucrative third career as an advocate for special interests. He soon became a legend among lobbyists, for three reasons. One was the supranormal fees that clients paid him. Another was the shadowy clients Abramoff represented--often interests, like the dictatorships of Pakistan and Malaysia, that were engaged in questionable behavior. And the third was the high profile of his contacts. "He has access to DeLay," a flack for the then-majority whip told National Journal early in the revolution.
For almost three years, from 1995 to 1997, Safavian worked at Abramoff's side. Accounts included the exile government of Macedonia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Microsoft Corporation, and Soyuzkontrakt Trade & Finance, a Russian conglomerate with business in the United States. As an associate, Safavian would have watched his boss flatter and pamper clients, arrange junkets to foreign countries for sympathetic lawmakers and journalists, and, most of all, make a gigantic pile of money. He would also have learned, like other lobbyists, how to substitute the private for the public interest with ease. He was an enormous success.
Such a success, in fact, that in 1997, when Abramoff's longtime comrade Grover Norquist opened a lobbying firm of his own, he made Safavian a partner. The new company was called the Merritt Group, then renamed Janus-Merritt Strategies--Janus, the Roman god of access, of entrances and exits, has two faces--then finally was sold to the Richmond-based firm Williams Mullen in 2002. As with any Norquist venture, the tenor of the firm was fiercely ideological. "We represent clients who really do have an interest in a smaller federal government," Safavian told Legal Times in a 1997 interview. "We're all very ideologically driven, and have a bias in favor of free markets." He went on: "We're not letting people who offer us money change our principles."
Scanning Janus-Merritt's lobbying registry, one can divide the firm's clients into a few types. There were businesses like BP America, the U.S. division of British Petroleum. There were foreign companies like the Corporacion Venezolana de Cementos and Grupo Financiero Banorte. And there were gaming interests, including Indian tribes. Janus-Merritt flacked for the Saginaw Chippewa--a client the firm shared with Jack Abramoff--the Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians, and the National Indian Gaming Association.
Safavian was a passionate advocate of Internet gambling. His clients included the Interactive Gaming Council, a trade association for online betting houses, and CDM Fantasy Sports, which, according to its website, is "one of the leading providers of fantasy sports products and services in North America." In 1999, he founded the Internet Consumer Choice Coalition, a nonprofit whose sole purpose, it would appear, was to fight a bill authored by Republican Arizona senator Jon Kyl that would have made online gambling a federal crime. Coalition members included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Concerned Taxpayers, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Interactive Services Association, the Small Business Survival Committee, and the United States Internet Council. As is common in the incestuous world of paid advocacy, some coalition members--the Interactive Services Association, for one--were also clients of Safavian's. Another, Americans for Tax Reform, was Norquist's activist group.
Month after month, year after year, ten-thousand-dollar check after check, Safavian helped to defeat the Kyl bill. He was proud of his efforts. And he wasn't afraid to brag about his accomplishments. On December 15, 2000, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association posted a message entitled "from Safavian" on its website. It was a pithy message, but it captured, in its own way, the biases and assumptions, the Manichaean worldview, that lobbyists and activists carry around in their heads. First, using capital letters for emphasis, Safavian wrote: "I am please [sic] to let you know that we were successful. There are no internet gambling provisions in the final appropriation [sic] bill."
Then he urged his clients--and, presumably, online poker addicts across the globe--to "relax a bit." At least "for now." Because "policy beat politics once again. (Maybe the American system isn't really that bad.)" In this case, he said, "the good guys won."
JANUS-MERRITT HAD A FOURTH TYPE OF CLIENT: American Muslim activists. Here, too, the firm's choice of clients complemented its politics. Lassoing American Muslims into the Republican coalition has been a longstanding goal of Norquist's. To that end, he established the Islamic Institute in 1998. Officially titled the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation, the group, according to its website, seeks to "create a better understanding between the American Muslim community and the political leadership" and "provide a platform to promote an Islamic perspective on domestic issues." The Institute also produces numerous pamphlets explaining how Islam is compatible with the free market. Norquist is chairman of the board. Safavian registered as a lobbyist for the institute shortly after it was born.
A prominent American Muslim attorney, Khaled Saffuri, is the executive director of the Islamic Institute. Saffuri is also a friend of Abramoff's. His previous job was at the American Muslim Council, or AMC, an Islamic interest group with a controversial past. That past caught up with Safavian sometime in October 2000, when Janus-Merritt submitted forms to the Senate registering Omar Nashashibi--one of the firm's partners--and several others to lobby for Abdurahman Alamoudi, the then-head of the AMC. Safavian's name is also mentioned in the document.
A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Eritrea, Alamoudi is now serving a 23-year term in federal prison for conspiring to assassinate then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Put simply, Alamoudi is a radical Islamist and terrorist sympathizer who openly supported Hamas and Hezbollah while a client of Janus-Merritt's. There's no way around it: The guy is a bad dude.
Alamoudi first entered the public eye on October 28, 2000, when he took the mike at an anti-Israel rally outside the White House and chanted: "I have been labeled by the media in New York to be a supporter of Hamas. Anybody supporters of Hamas here?"
The crowd reportedly cheered, and Alamoudi went on: "Hear that, Bill Clinton? We are all supporters of Hamas. Allah akbar! I wish to add here I am also a supporter of Hezbollah. . . . My brothers, this is the message that we have to carry to everybody. It's an occupation, and Hamas is fighting to end an occupation. It's a legal fight. Allah akbar! Allah Akbar!"
Abdurahman Alamoudi was a "citizen of the world"--in his case, the world of international Islamic terrorism. The Jerusalem Post has reported he attended a conference in January 2001 in Beirut that released a communique which said "America today is a second Israel." On August 11, 2003, while trying to fly to Damascus with $340,000 in cash stuffed in his luggage, he was detained by Scotland Yard at Heathrow International Airport. He told authorities the cash had been given to him by a Libyan intelligence agent, and that the Libyan government had paid him between $10,000 and $20,000 on several occasions. Just like that, Alamoudi had revealed that he was an asset of the Libyan government, and, as he later admitted in a plea agreement, he had been plotting to murder Crown Prince Abdullah for some time.
Between 2000 and 2001 he paid Janus-Merritt Strategies about $40,000 in lobbying fees.
Or did he? Safavian spent much of his Senate confirmation hearing in 2004 scurrying as far away from Alamoudi as he possibly could. "To my knowledge, neither I nor Janus-Merritt did any work for Mr. Alamoudi," he told the Senate in April 2004. "I do not know why Mr. Alamoudi was erroneously listed in the client's lobby disclosure forms." More, "I do not believe Janus-Merritt received any funds from Mr. Alamoudi."
But, according to Senate disclosure reports, this was incorrect. For years Janus-Merritt registered as a lobbyist for Alamoudi. And then, on December 17, 2001, after Safavian had left the firm, Janus-Merritt resubmitted its disclosure forms. This time Alamoudi had been replaced by one Dr. Jamal al Barzinji. Why the firm changed its registration is unknown. For his part, Safavian told the Senate, al Barzinji, not Alamoudi, was his client. "Dr. Jamal al Barzinji," he said, "should have been listed as the client retaining the firm for work related to Malaysian political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim." In fact, Barzinji had been listed as a contact, not a client, on all the disclosure forms. The matter is unresolved.
Let's say, though, that al Barzinji was Safavian's client. That, too, is not really something to be proud of. Al Barzinji, unlike Alamoudi, is a free man. He is a Saudi, and he is the chairman and CEO of Mar-Jac Poultry, which, according to its Yahoo! Finance company profile, "slaughters and processes chickens for sale to foodservice businesses" and "processes 1.5 million pounds of poultry, making 250,000 fast-food products and 100,000 boneless products, per day."
Mar-Jac is located in Gainesville, Georgia, but al Barzinji lives in Herndon, Virginia, where he also serves as the director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought. He is the author of a book, Working Principles for an Islamic Model in Mass Media Communication, and he has appeared at numerous panels and conferences, including two at Virginia Tech's "Islam Awareness Week" in the spring of 2003, where he lectured on the "Islamization of Knowledge" and "Islam in America."
Last, but certainly not least, Dr. al Barzinji is a defendant in a massive, several-hundred-plaintiff civil suit against the planners and financial supporters of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The affidavit in that case, clocking in at 259 pages, alleges that al Barzinji is, among other things, an officer of the SAAR Foundation, a Saudi-financed "charity" that "financially supports terrorism." The foundation is composed, the affidavit goes on, of "more than one hundred affiliated organizations registered or doing business at just one of SAAR's addresses in Herndon, Virginia." In 1998 SAAR reported $1.7 billion in revenues, the largest charitable take in history--most of which funds were subsequently diverted to Islamic fundamentalist organizations. "People associated with the SAAR Foundation and its network are also implicated in . . . the United States Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania," the affidavit explains.
And Mar-Jac Poultry, it turns out, and its holding company, Mar-Jac Investments, are wholly owned subsidiaries of the SAAR Foundation. On March 20, 2002, the company's offices, along with the homes of al Barzinji and others, were raided by a federal task force investigating terrorist finances, Operation Greenquest. Al Barzinji is named in the warrant authorizing the search as an "officer or director" of the SAAR Foundation, "controlled by individuals who have shown support for terrorists or terrorist fronts."
Asked about his association with one terrorist, Safavian let slip to the Senate his association with a target in an ongoing criminal investigation. Not smooth. If anyone noticed, however, they gave no clue.
In retrospect, of course, Safavian's choice of clientele--he also registered as a lobbyist for the government of Pakistan, the government of Gabon, and Pascal Lissouba, the corrupt former president of the Republic of the Congo--is unsurprising, and more than a little telling. He was merely following the example of his mentors, Abramoff and Norquist, trafficking with unsavory characters in the name of righteous causes. In the '80s, to take the most famous example, the two befriended Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan Maoist "freedom fighter" and alleged cannibal, and lobbied vociferously on his behalf. The names change, but the openness to sketchy rogues remains.
Once again, there's nothing illegal about any of this. You may feel a twinge of melancholy, perhaps, at the ease with which onetime rebels settled in to their post-1994 roles as conservative "movement" chieftains. But you won't find anything that breaks the law. All the disclosure forms were filed appropriately. No wrongdoing can be traced back to the lobbyists, who are paid, after all, to put the best face possible on their client's case. And not even the best advocate knows what his client is up to all the time. Not even the best knows everything about his client's background and beliefs. Right?
"AS A LOBBYIST, you always need to be thinking," Safavian told the Michigan State Law School alumni magazine in the summer of 2002. "You spend your time moving legislation. It all comes down to being an advocate." He had left Janus-Merritt in June 2001 to become Utah Republican congressman Chris Cannon's chief of staff. A reliable conservative, Cannon had hired Safavian, along with Norquist protegée Bethany Noble, for many reasons, fundraising foremost among them.
The two knew how to raise cash. Safavian started the Western Leadership Fund, a political action committee, run out of his home, devoted to Cannon's reelection. Many of the donors had been clients of Safavian's in the private sector, including Indian gaming tribes. Never mind Cannon's position on the gaming issue ("I oppose gambling. I think it's a pernicious vice. I'd like to eliminate it")--a tide of casino money flowed into his war chest between 2001 and 2003. Meanwhile, Cannon voted repeatedly against efforts to restrict online gambling. He and his chief of staff were in sync. All indications are that Safavian liked his boss, and that his boss liked him.
Safavian's tenure as Cannon's chief of staff was painless. And quick. Within a year he had moved on to the executive branch, becoming chief of staff to Stephen Perry, the administrator of the General Services Administration, or GSA. The General Services Administration acts as custodian for all federal properties--it buys them, sells them, and takes care of them in between. It's a peripheral agency, staffed mainly with career bureaucrats. It is far from the center of power. But it has its uses.
Safavian's first day on the job was May 16, 2002. Within a week Jack Abramoff emailed him to ask for a favor.
Abramoff had a problem. In 2001, he had taken millions of dollars from the coffers of the Capital Athletic Foundation, the charity he had founded with his wife to fund sports programs for needy kids, and used the money to start the Eshkol Academy, a Jewish day school in suburban Maryland. Now the school needed a new location. Abramoff must have thought that, with Safavian in a key position, he could get a sweet deal on some government property. Specifically, he had in mind renting and perhaps ultimately purchasing a 40-acre tract of land at the White Oak government facility in Silver Spring.
While Safavian was at it, Abramoff had another favor to ask. One of the Indian tribes he represented was also looking to buy some property. Tribal leaders were eyeing the Old Post Office building in downtown D.C., a storied and majestic structure on Pennsylvania Avenue that GSA held in trust. Because American Indians are a minority group, they are eligible for special tax breaks and subsidies when leasing government space. Abramoff wanted his clients to have a heads-up on any potential sale of the Old Post Office.
At this point, we turn to the criminal affidavit filed against Safavian. According to the document, Abramoff first emailed Safavian about the White Oak property on May 24, 2002. A few weeks later, on June 14, Abramoff sent an email to one of his coworkers saying that Safavian was "going to join us in Scotland." The Scotland trip--a golf junket to the famous St. Andrews course--had been planned for some time. It was a special thank-you to Rep. Ney, who had tried to insert language reopening one of Abramoff's clients' casinos into an election reform bill that year.
In June 2002, Abramoff had asked the client, the El Paso Tigua, to pay for the trip: "Our friend"--that would be Ney--" . . . asked if you could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff (his committee chief of staff) for August. The trip will be quite expensive (we did this for another member--you know who)"--that would be Tom DeLay--"2 years ago. Let me know if you guys could do $50k . . . they would probably do the trip through the Capital Athletic Foundation as an educational mission." The Tigua had no money, however. They couldn't pay for the trip. Abramoff took the money from the Capital Athletic Foundation instead.
After reading Abramoff's email saying Safavian would be on the golf trip, the coworker shot back: "Why dave? I like him but didn't know u did as much. Business angle?"
Abramoff replied the next day. "Total business angle," he wrote. "He is new COS of GSA."
Much correspondence ensued, all helpfully included in the affidavit. On June 19, Abramoff emailed Safavian to ask how his casino clients could best lease the Old Post Office from the government. And on June 30 he wrote Safavian yet again, this time returning, once more, to the subject of land for his school:
Can you find out if you guys have control of any part of a huge federal property called the White Oak Federal Research Center, off New Hampshire Ave in Silver Spring? I want to try to get 40 acres of that tract if possible for a non-profit. Is it doable?
A few days later Safavian replied:
We have not fully allocated all of the acreage at White Oak. We are still surveying whether any other federal agencies are interested. If not, we would begin disposal (i.e., sale or donation) proceedings. As for the other project . . .
Safavian was referring to the potential lease of the Old Post Office.
. . . you should know that aside from section 8a preferences, Indian tribes also have "hub zone" status, which provides for enterprise zone-like tax benefits. You will need to ramp up on this as it is progressing. Let's discuss. Dhs.
The two continued their correspondence throughout the month of July. We're told that they mostly talked about the upcoming golf trip. Then, on July 21, Abramoff wrote to Safavian, in an email with the subject line "White Oak": "The facility is secured, as I understand. Any thoughts on how we could get a tour there without giving a heads up to too many folks?" Abramoff must have thought that Safavian would work something out. Later in the day, he wrote a coworker that the chief of staff was "totally supportive."
Meanwhile, Safavian advised Abramoff on the Old Post Office deal. On July 22, 2002, Abramoff sent Safavian a draft of a letter that his allies in Congress were willing to send to Safavian's boss. According to the affidavit, the letter urged the GSA to give "special consideration" to "HUBZone businesses," such as those owned by Indian tribes. Appended to the letter was a question Abramoff had for Safavian: "Does this work, or do you want it to be longer?"
And so it went, on and on, Abramoff emailing questions about both the Old Post Office and the parcel of land in Silver Spring, Safavian responding with answers and suggestions. Reading these emails, you are struck by their banality, the drudgery of government life, the glacial speed with which the bureaucracy conducts business. You are struck, too, that neither party gave any hint that he was behaving suspiciously or unusually. And perhaps they weren't behaving so. Perhaps this was just business as usual.
But then something changed. On July 25, a few days before leaving for Scotland, Safavian contacted a GSA ethics official. What was the policy, he wondered, governing overseas vacations paid for by lobbyists? At issue, he wrote in an email, "is airfare":
The host of the trip is chartering a private jet to take the eight of us from BWI to Scottland [sic] and back. He is paying the cost for the aircraft regardless of whether I go or not. In fact, none of the other guest [sic] will be paying a proportional share of the aircraft costs. I need to know how to treat this activity.
One other point of relevance: the host is a lawyer and lobbyist, but one that has no business before GSA (he does all of his work on Capitol Hill).
The emphasis is added, just as it is in the affidavit, for what should be obvious reasons: To write that Abramoff "has no business before GSA" was a stretch, to say the very least. The ethics officer took Safavian at his word. What reason did he have not to? "Based upon the information you have provided," he wrote to Safavian, "you may accept the gift of free transportation from your friend." No doubt pleased with this answer, Safavian forwarded the ethics officer's email to Abramoff under the message "It looks like Scotland is a go."
That wasn't the only thing he forwarded to Abramoff on July 26, 2002. He also sent along an email that had been under discussion at the agency, which, according to the FBI affidavit, outlined "alternatives for transferring NSWC-White Oak to 'high school and sports academy'"--specifically, Abramoff's Eshkol school. Safavian was frustrated. "This is the type of bureaucracy I'm dealing with," he vented in another email to his mentor. "I am still running the traps on the [one] year lease."
A few days later, in a reply to a message that Abramoff had sent to his home email, Safavian added a few comments, in brackets, to a letter that Eshkol's lawyers planned to send to the General Services Administration:
I would add a couple of paragraphs concerning the school's history (if there is some), its mission, its annual budget, etc. How is this unique or different than schools currently available to students from the area. If you are comfortable with it, I would also add a paragraph explaining what happened with Montgomery County in order to drive home the urgency of this issue. . . . I would NOT raise the possibility of obtaining GSA land from White Oak. That could be seen as an unofficial reason to deny your request for use of the property this year.
Meantime, Safavian wanted to hold a meeting. He talked to Abramoff, who then wrote to his wife and to two other school officials. Things were moving ahead at full speed, Abramoff explained. "They"--GSA officials--"want to meet downtown on Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the GSA building. . . . David"--Safavian--"does not think that I should be there, given my high profile politically. I agree. the three of you can go, though."
Later Abramoff sent another email to his wife:
David does not want [Abramoff] used in the meeting. when you check in at the door, however, you'll need your driver's license, and it's OK for you to be [Abramoff] there, since that won't get up to the guy in the meeting (who probably does not know me, but David and I don't want to take a chance). OK?
OK. The meeting took place on August 2. All indications are that it went off without a hitch.
The very next day Safavian, Abramoff, Ney, and Ralph Reed, among others, boarded a private jet to Scotland. The St. Andrews trip lasted eight days, August 3 to August 11. It included a stop in London, and like all Abramoff junkets it was a lavish affair, costing well over $100,000. Everyone had a blast.
LET'S PAUSE, FOR A MOMENT, to ask which man, Abramoff or Safavian, master or apprentice, thought he was getting the better of the other. Safavian was helping Abramoff on several fronts, and perhaps, to his mind, got a golf trip out of it. And although Safavian told the ethics officers that Abramoff had "no business pending" at the agency, Abramoff certainly thought he did. A lobbyist of his caliber, no doubt, would think that a week on the links could only help his cause. Then again, perhaps the two were playing one another, or each was simply trying to help a friend. With Abramoff and his friends it is always hard to tell.
In the end, though, Abramoff's efforts went nowhere. The Indians never leased the Old Post Office building. The Eshkol Academy never found a new home on government property. A lack of success is one of the Abramoff saga's recurring themes--a lot of people paid him a lot of money, but no one, in the end, can tell you exactly what the clients got in return. Eshkol closed in 2003. Abramoff had spent over $4 million of the Capital Athletic Foundation's money on it.
On March 26, 2003, according to the FBI affidavit, an anonymous tipster contacted the General Services Administration's office of the inspector general. The tipster had information regarding Safavian's trip to Scotland. The information seemed substantive enough to warrant further inquiry. The GSA inspector general interviewed Safavian, who said that Abramoff had no business with GSA in August 2002, that he had taken the time for the trip from his annual leave, and that, in fact, he had reimbursed Abramoff for his plane tickets and accommodations. Then Safavian gave the inspector general a copy of a check he had written to Abramoff for $3,100, dated August 3, 2002, the day he left for St. Andrews. Safavian was cooperative. Everything seemed in order. The inspector general closed the inquiry.
On November 3, 2003, President Bush nominated Safavian to head the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Procurement Policy. Bush resubmitted the nomination on January 22, 2004, and the Senate confirmed Safavian later that year. At his nomination hearing Democratic representative John Conyers of Michigan told the Senate Government Affairs Committee that "this is probably a very great morning, a very great day for our country, for his family."
Except for a brief college internship at the Pentagon, Safavian had little experience in federal procurement, but, as Conyers pointed out, he did have a happy family. His wife Jennifer was chief counsel to Republican representative Tom Davis of Virginia, head of the House Committee on Government Reform. Jennifer Safavian's purview included . . . yup, federal procurement. Which her husband now ran for the executive branch.
Eager to stave off any potential conflicts of interest, Mrs. Safavian's bosses dashed off a letter on December 9, 2003, outlining the committee's recusal policy. "Effective immediately," they wrote, "Ms. Safavian will be recused from all matters where the conduct of officials and employees of the Office of Management and Budget is the central issue." Furthermore, "Ms. Safavian will be recused, also effective immediately, from oversight or investigation of any specific procurement matter at an agency or department other than OMB." Which recusal policy doubtless also extended to the Safavian breakfast nook and television room.
And yet, if this was a conflict of interest, no one raised a fuss. As Safavian settled into his new job, the investigation into Abramoff shuffled forward. Reporters and federal investigators began to look into the August 2002 junket. When asked about his week in Scotland, Safavian would repeat what he had told the GSA inspector general in 2003. "The trip was exclusively personal," he told the Washington Post this past January. "I did no business there. . . . Jack is an old friend of mine."
He told the same thing to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee:
As you may know, I was invited by [Abramoff] to join his trip to Scotland in August, 2002. [Abramoff] and I have had a relationship since 1994, when I worked as a new associate at [the Washington, D.C.] law firm where he was a partner. When the invitation was made, I was the chief of staff to the U.S. General Services Administration ("GSA"). [Abramoff] did not have any business before the agency at that time. . . . Counsel determined that I could accept the value of the trip gratis; it did not meet the definition of a "gift from a prohibited source" under the applicable regulations, nor was it considered a gift given because of my official position. Nevertheless, in the exercise of discretion, I gave [Abramoff] a check for the value of the trip prior to departure. In addition, I took leave without pay to travel.
And, according to his FBI affidavit, he told the same thing to the federal task force investigating Abramoff:
During this interview, SAFAVIAN stated in substance and in part that [Abramoff] had asked about acquiring land for Entity A and the OPO significantly well after the August 2002 Scotland trip and that, at the time of the trip, [Abramoff] had no business with GSA.
It was this series of obfuscations, of sly recastings of events, that ultimately led to Safavian's arrest.
AT ISSUE is whether Abramoff's dealings with Safavian on the White Oak property and the Old Post Office building constitute "business with GSA." Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, says they do not. "I don't believe that setting up meetings to figure out whether or not there is property available is doing business," she told the New York Times. "We think this is a creative use of the criminal code to try to secure Mr. Safavian's cooperation in other matters," she told Government Executive. The charges against him will be fought "vigorously," she has said.
Safavian may not have believed he was doing business, of course, but Abramoff did. For one, there's his email explaining that inviting Safavian on the Scotland trip was a "total business angle"--which email is likely to prove crucial to the government's case. For another, if asking for help to lease two properties from the government isn't business . . . well, what is?
Safavian's defense is Clintonian, resting on subtle and sophistic rhetorical interpretation. It worked for Clinton--maybe it will work again. But who would have thought that a member of the Bush administration, which promised to restore integrity to the White House, would adopt the legalistic defense of its immediate predecessor? Who would have thought that nine months into a second term, with increased majorities in the House and Senate, scandal would deluge the Republicans? Who would have expected that heretofore unknown political appointees like Safavian and ex-FEMA director Mike Brown and others would become symbols of the Republican party's troubles?
Van Gelder is right about one thing. The government would probably like to secure Safavian's cooperation. The investigation of Abramoff has reached a critical stage. Safavian's testimony--and that of Michael Scanlon, who is reportedly in talks with authorities--could be the first step on the way to additional indictments. His arrest is the first slippage along the fault line, the first crack in the ice, the first leak in the dam. There will likely be others. The case of United States of America v. David Hossein Safavian is only the beginning.
Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.