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Amid Strife, Abramoff Had Pal at White House

`Let me know if there is ANYTHING I can do to help,' top budget official David Safavian said in one of their e-mails as the scandal unfolded.

May 11, 2006|Peter Wallsten, James Gerstenzang and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Lobbyist Jack Abramoff engaged in regular contact with a high-ranking White House official, asking for favors and pouring out his heart as lawmakers and the media began exposing details of his business dealings, according to copies of e-mails released Wednesday by the White House.

At one point, when news reports began detailing the lobbyist's role in a burgeoning ethics scandal that has threatened to envelop Republican lawmakers, the White House aide offered to assist Abramoff with "damage control."

The e-mails, which include dozens of communications during 2004, reveal a casual, jocular relationship between Abramoff and David H. Safavian, who was chief of federal procurement policy at the White House budget office until he was charged last year with lying in connection with a federal investigation of Abramoff.

Safavian had the power to help Abramoff with some aspects of his lobbying business, and some of the e-mails concern business matters. Most, however, concentrate on friendly banter.

In early October 2004, Safavian asked sympathetically how Abramoff was doing after published reports that he had made disparaging comments about his Indian tribe clients in e-mail messages. "Pretty bummed," Abramoff replied. "They really made me out to be a horrible person. They twisted everything.... The worst was them accusing me of being a racist! I have spilled more blood for tribes than I can possibly recount."

Earlier, in February, when Abramoff's dealings began making headlines, Safavian made his offer to assist with damage control. Days later, Safavian wrote again, assuring Abramoff that "you're in our thoughts."

"Let me know if there is ANYTHING I can do to help," the White House official wrote.

The White House Office of Management and Budget released the e-mails Wednesday in response to a request from a news outlet under the Freedom of Information Act.

A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, said, "We expect all employees to fully comply with the laws and regulations governing ethical behavior." She did not directly address the relationship between Abramoff and Safavian, noting only that Safavian no longer worked in the administration.

Safavian's lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, said Wednesday that the e-mails revealed nothing new and were indications of a well-established friendship between two men. "This is locker room banter with a Blackberry," she said. "And it just shows a consistent pattern of friendship."

Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion in a scheme that involved a conspiracy to defraud Indian tribes of more than $20 million through secret kickbacks. He has agreed to help prosecutors in an ongoing influence-peddling investigation of Congress.

Safavian faces trial on charges of obstructing a federal investigation and making false statements when he was questioned about a trip he took as Abramoff's guest.

Although much of the e-mail correspondence released Wednesday was personal, business did occasionally come up.

In February 2004, even as Abramoff came under public scrutiny, Safavian sought the lobbyist's advice on a potential appointee to a new advisory panel being created to study federal procurement practices.

Safavian indicated that the possible appointee no longer worked at Abramoff's law firm of Greenberg Traurig, adding, "I assume that means you have no interest in seeing him named to the panel. Correct?"

Abramoff gave the appointment the green light. "He is still absolutely part of our family," Abramoff wrote.

White House officials said Wednesday that the lawyer in question was not appointed to the advisory panel.

In November 2004, Abramoff asked Safavian if he would meet with a fellow lobbyist and that lobbyist's client.

"Absolutely," Safavian responded. "I need a one-pager on the client and issue(s) faxed to me (no email)."

Throughout the e-mails, it is clear Safavian was a regular customer at Signatures, the downtown Washington restaurant owned by Abramoff. In one note, Safavian refers to a visit to "Sigs" as a contribution to the "Abramoff Children's Trust."

One day in July, when Abramoff was unable to have lunch with Safavian, the White House aide said he made plans with someone else. "When you spurned my invite, I called one of the industry sycophants and offered him an opportunity to suck up," Safavian wrote.

Abramoff replied: "Damn, I want to be the one to suck up!!!"

Separately on Wednesday, the Secret Service released documents showing that Abramoff paid two visits to the White House.

The documents appear to be only a partial accounting of Abramoff's White House visits.

Released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the watchdog group Judicial Watch, they show that Abramoff spent 26 minutes in the White House complex on March 6, 2001, and 47 minutes there on Jan. 20, 2004.

The records do not show whom Abramoff visited or who requested the visit.

Abramoff is believed to have visited the White House on at least two other occasions, including one in which he appears to be in a picture with Bush and several others.

Eric Zahren, a Secret Service spokesman, said the agency did not keep all records of White House visits. Rather, the White House itself keeps records of social visits and, often, of groups visiting the president or staff members.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which describes itself as a conservative nonpartisan group promoting government accountability, said the Secret Service made available less information than when the organization had sought similar information during the Clinton administration.

"There's more information they're not providing," he said.

Zahren said: "If you're asking the Secret Service for all the records they hold, this is what they got today. Everything we have has now been turned over" to Judicial Watch.

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