WASHINGTON — Former Bush administration official David Safavian denied Friday that he ever tried to conceal from ethics officials and investigators the advice he gave Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff about two federal properties.
Taking the stand in his own defense in U.S. District Court, the former chief of staff of the General Services Administration also replied "no, no, no" when his lawyer asked if he'd ever given the disgraced lobbyist any inside information on bidding.
Safavian did express regret over two e-mails he sent his ex-partner Abramoff about GSA's plan to redevelop the Old Post Office in Washington, a project Abramoff hoped to help an Indian tribe client obtain.
"It was not a brilliant move" to forward an internal government e-mail describing the opposition of another government official to GSA's plan, and "in hindsight, it was probably not" appropriate for him to e-mail Abramoff later that "we're gonna have to roll this idiot," Safavian testified. He blamed those errors on his inexperience in the executive branch.
Abramoff pleaded guilty this year to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy and has been cooperating with government investigators. Safavian is charged with making false statements about his dealings with Abramoff and obstructing inquiries into his actions.
Within weeks of giving him advice on the two GSA properties, Safavian joined a weeklong trip arranged by Abramoff to the famed St. Andrews golf course in Scotland and on to London. Safavian insisted he thought his $3,100 check to Abramoff on departure paid all his costs -- including chartered jet airfare. Prosecutors say the trip cost more than $130,000 for the nine participants.
Asked by his lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, if the trip's luxuries make him suspect Abramoff was underestimating costs in order to give him a gift, Safavian replied, "I didn't think so at the time."
"But during this case we've seen a lot of information that the trip cost a lot more," Safavian added.
Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg went painstakingly through some of the costs of a trip with $400 rounds of golf, $100 rounds of drinks and $500-a-night hotel rooms and asked if it never dawned on Safavian that he was undercharged until the trial.
"It never occurred to me to question" Abramoff's cost figure, Safavian replied. "Mr. Abramoff had no reason to underbill me. He knew I was concerned about ... appearances. Why would he sandbag me that way?"
Also on cross-examination, Safavian said he proposed getting General Services Administrator Stephen Perry together with Abramoff several times not to aid his friend's lobbying but because "Perry likes to golf," and "Abramoff enjoyed being in the company of political people."
Van Gelder asked Safavian if, as the indictment alleges, he had ever concealed his dealings with Abramoff on the properties, just before the trip, from GSA ethics officials, GSA inspector-general investigators or the Senate. Safavian said "no" three separate times. He said he told them all he thought they needed to know.
Safavian testified he still believed it was proper for him to give Abramoff advice and information about GSA properties. Van Gelder asked whether Abramoff was lobbying him in a series of e-mails in 2002 about the properties. Safavian said no, "because I wasn't the authorizing official.... There was no action I could have taken to help Mr. Abramoff."
She asked Safavian if it wasn't abusing his position as GSA chief of staff to have career government workers search out information for his friend.
"I still don't think there's anything wrong with that," Safavian replied.
"It's part of GSA's function to provide information to work with the private sector. GSA career officials get these queries all the time."