May 24, 2006 11:40 AM PDT

E-mail a factor in case against former Bush official

WASHINGTON--E-mail messages took center stage Wednesday in the criminal trial of David Safavian, a former Bush administration official accused of lying about his involvement with high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

David Safavian, 38, a top General Services Administration official, oversaw federal procurement policy until last September, when he was arrested by the FBI. He is accused of lying to investigators and obstructing the government's probe into Abramoff's dealings.

David Safavian David Safavian

During opening statements in federal district court, Justice Department attorney Peter Zeidenberg told jurors that the government would prove Safavian's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by "relying largely on the defendant's own words" in electronic form.

Zeidenberg displayed about six e-mail messages on screens in the courtroom, read portions aloud, and said they would "demonstrate clearly and unequivocally" that Safavian had been helping Abramoff in deals involving federally managed land--and then concealing his involvement from investigators. Also at issue is whether Safavian legally could have accepted a free golf trip to St. Andrews, Scotland, with Abramoff, House Republicans Bob Ney and Tom DeLay, and former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed.

"Rather than work to further the interest of all the people," Safavian worked to further the wishes of "a rich powerful lobbyist and rich personal friend," Zeidenberg said.

This is hardly the first time archived e-mail messages have become the centerpiece of a federal case. During the Microsoft antitrust trial, Justice Department attorneys delighted in highlighting incendiary e-mail messages that Chairman Bill Gates and other company executives exchanged. In one August 1997 e-mail message, for instance, Gates asked subordinates: "Do we have a clear plan on what we want Apple to do to undermine Sun?"

Barbara Van Gelder, Safavian's attorney, attempted to portray her client as merely a close friend of Abramoff's who had no inkling at the time that the lobbyist was engaged in any illicit behavior.

"They worked together, they had a common interest in golf and racquetball," she said. Far from concealing the Scotland trip with Abramoff, her client "told everyone" about it and even showed them pictures, she added later.

Before joining the Bush administration, Safavian worked with Abramoff at the law firm of Preston Gates & Ellis. Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Van Gelder cautioned jurors not to read too much into the e-mail exchange "with the jaundiced eye, the cynical eye the government has for everyone who ever talked to Jack Abramoff." Van Gelder, a former federal prosecutor, is an attorney at Wiley Rein & Fielding.

"The government's case isn't worth the paper these e-mails were written on," Van Gelder said.

The Justice Department has filed about 200 e-mails with the court, and many are cited in court documents prepared by the FBI.

For instance, in one of these e-mails, to a General Services Administration ethics officer, Safavian apparently wrote that Abramoff, the host of the golf trip, "is a lobbyist and lawyer, but one who has no business before the GSA (he does all his work on Capitol Hill)." He ultimately gave Abramoff a check for $3,100 to cover the trip and took leave without pay to travel, the court documents said.

The Justice Department's Zeidenberg argued that that check was "nothing more than window dressing" and would have covered only a small fraction of the trip's cost, which he pegged at $140,000 for the eight participants. Van Gelder said Safavian wrote the check based on a cost quoted by Abramoff himself, which "no one questioned...until Jack Abramoff became a crook."

Besides the trip, Safavian received "countless" other e-mailed offers of golf, racquetball, meals at the two restaurants Abramoff owned and sports tickets in luxury boxes, Zeidenberg said. At the same time, he was providing "assistance" to the lobbyist regarding the GSA properties he was interested in acquiring, the prosecutor said.

All Safavian did, Van Gelder said, was give Abramoff "publicly available information" about the government-owned locales. She added that neither of the two properties discussed in the e-mail exchanges ultimately came into the lobbyist's possession. According to court filings, Abramoff had been hoping to use one of the sites for relocating a private school he had founded and to lease space in the other property for some of his lobbying clients.

In the prosecution's eyes, Safavian's alleged failure to mention those interactions about the properties to government investigators amounted to "lying, concealing and misleading."

Safavian's jury trial continues Thursday and is expected to last about two weeks.

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