Safavian attorney seeks to discredit former Ney aide

The lead attorney for indicted former Bush administration official David Safavian charged yesterday in court that an ex-congressional aide’s looming testimony against her client may not be credible.

Safavian, who used to be a top procurement official at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is the first defendant this week to face the jury in the influence-peddling scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And in the coming days, Neil Volz, a former aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) who pleaded guilty this month to conspiracy, is also going to face that same jury, testifying for the prosecution in Safavian’s case.

But that testimony will be a way to reduce his own his jail sentence significantly, Safavian lawyer Barbara Van Gelder charged in her opening statement yesterday in Judge Paul Friedman’s court.

“Neil Volz is crawling out of jail on Mr. Safavian’s back,” Van Gelder said. She said that Volz talked to government investigators seven times before he agreed to plead guilty.

In another attack on Volz’s credibility, Van Gelder said that he pleaded guilty to violating the so-called revolving-door law, which prohibits ex-congressional staffers to lobby lawmakers for a year after they leave the Hill. “That door hit him” in the back, she said. “It did not revolve.”

Under the charges Volz faces five years in prison, but by cooperating with the government the jail term can be reduced to two years and with “substantial assistance” it could be less than that, Van Gelder said.

It is common for those charged with a crime to agree to cooperate with the government for a lesser sentence.

Volz, Ney’s former chief of staff and communications director, accepted a job with now-disgraced Abramoff after working in the congressional office for seven years.

While working for Ney, Volz took illegal gifts from Abramoff, and as a lobbyist he gave illegal gifts to Ney and his former colleagues, prosecutors said.

Ney has not been charged with any crime and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Calls to Volz’s attorney were not returned by press time.

Meanwhile, a five-count grand-jury indictment alleges that Safavian concealed from investigators his assistance to Abramoff, who wanted to acquire part of a government center in Silver Spring, Md., to build a school, and to lease a downtown Washington landmark, the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, for his Indian-tribe clients to build a hotel.

Safavian, a close friend of Abramoff’s, was chief of staff to the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) and later moved to the OMB.

Prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg charged that Safavian abandoned his duty to the public in order to serve Abramoff and concealed his behavior from investigators. Safavian “falsified, concealed and covered up” assistance he gave to Abramoff and falsely stated that Abramoff did not have any business with the GSA, Zeidenberg said in his opening statements.

Safavian provided information about government properties that Abramoff wanted for himself or his clients. Safavian is charged with lying not only about his contacts with Abramoff but also about the circumstances of a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland by private jet. Ney and Volz were on the same trip.

The government’s case is based largely on scores of e-mails sent between Abramoff and Safavian.

But Van Gelder urged the jury to not “believe everything you read.” She added that the government is looking for “guilt by association.”

Van Gelder said the defense is intent on proving that Abramoff had no business with the GSA, nor was he seeking to do business with the government agency.

“In 2002, nobody knew Jack Abramoff was a crook [and] that he was stealing from his clients,” Van Gelder said. “David Safavian was not in Jack Abramoff’s pocket, but he was his friend.”

She added that the government is stretching the facts to put Safavian in a “web of corruption.”

Safavian chose to fight the charges instead of cooperating with the government, unlike Volz and two other lobbyists involved with Abramoff, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon. The defense has argued the government has a weak case against him.

Wearing a dark-gray suit, Safavian arrived in court yesterday morning well before the start of the trial with his wife, mother and legal team.

During the court proceedings, Safavian conferred with his attorneys while occasionally smiling and taking down notes.

His trial is expected to last about a week. Abramoff is not expected to testify.