WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court overturned the conviction of a former White House official Tuesday in a significant defeat for prosecutors who are overseeing the investigation into the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.
David Safavian was convicted in 2006 of four charges related to statements he made to officials who were investigating Abramoff, a former lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe lawmakers and bilking his Indian-tribe clients out of millions of dollars.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out two felony-concealment charges against Safavian, saying he had "no legal duty to disclose" details about his relationship with Abramoff to General Services Administration ethics and inspector-general officials. At the time, Safavian was the GSA's chief of staff and helped Abramoff attempt to buy two GSA-managed properties in the Washington area.
"Attorneys commonly advise their clients to answer questions truthfully but not to volunteer information ... " the court wrote. "The government essentially asks us to hold that once an individual starts talking, he cannot stop."
The court also said that Safavian deserved a new trial on charges related to allegations that he obstructed investigators who'd been looking into a golfing trip he took with Abramoff in Scotland and that he lied to the Senate.
Laura Sweeney, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on whether they'd retry Safavian. She said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling.
So far, Safavian is the only defendant in the Abramoff investigation to go to trial. Fourteen others have pleaded guilty, including Abramoff, who's serving six years in prison on unrelated charges.
Barbara Van Gelder, Safavian's defense attorney during the trial, said she thought that the Justice Department should dismiss the remaining charges. She accused prosecutors of overzealously pursuing Safavian, a longtime friend of Abramoff, contending that they wanted him to plead guilty and cooperate against other defendants whom he knew nothing about.
Safavian was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but his sentence had been put on hold until the outcome of his appeal. He's been disbarred from practicing law because of the allegations.
"He's suffered enough," Van Gelder said. "I hope prosecutors look at the decision and realize that they took an extreme and aggressive view and consider making a midcourse correction."
The court also said that the trial judge should have permitted defense attorneys to call experts to testify about the meaning of Safavian's statements, a development that his appellate attorney Larry Robbins said would strengthen his client's case if he were retried.
During the eight-day trial in 2006, prosecutors presented dozens of e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff discussing the GSA properties.
Abramoff contacted Safavian days after his old friend became GSA's chief of staff to talk to him about the properties, according to federal records.
Abramoff wanted to buy or lease a portion of 600 acres in Silver Spring, Md., and the Old Post Office Building in Washington. At the time, the GSA managed the properties.
Prosecutors said Safavian later gave Abramoff advice about leasing or buying the properties, provided him with internal government documents and set up a meeting with other GSA officials.
At the time, Safavian had been planning to take the golfing trip to Scotland with a group that included Abramoff and then-U.S. Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio. Ney has since stepped down and pleaded guilty to doing favors for Abramoff and other lobbyists in exchange for meals, sports tickets and campaign contributions.
Safavian testified during the trial that he'd reimbursed Abramoff $3,100 for the trip, while prosecutors asserted that Abramoff intentionally underbilled Safavian for a trip that cost five times more than that.
In retrospect, Safavian acknowledged that some of his interactions with Abramoff made him uncomfortable, although he said he never intended to break the law.
Safavian sought an opinion from ethics officers about whether he could join the trip, telling them Abramoff was a "lawyer and a lobbyist, but one that has no business before GSA," according to the federal documents.
Ethics officers concluded that Safavian could accept a gift as long as Abramoff wasn't seeking to do business with the GSA.
His lawyers argued during the trial that he wasn't required under ethics rules to pay for the trip because those rules exempt friends as long as the relationship is disclosed. His wife, Jennifer Safavian, a lawyer, testified that she urged him to pay for the trip.