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The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
October 2005

Top Bush Official Arrested in Corruption Probe

David Safavian, who until Friday headed the "obscure but extremely important" federal procurement office in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was arrested yesterday, accused by federal agents of "lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government." In his position at the OMB, Safavian set purchasing policy for the entire government, and "had recently been working on developing contracting policies for the multibillion-dollar relief effort after Hurricane Katrina." His arrest -- the "first criminal complaint filed against a government official" in the ongoing Abramoff probe -- exposes a thicket of corruption involving Abramoff, leaders of the right-wing movement like Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, and public officials at the very highest levels of government, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).

LYING ABOUT ETHICS TO SEND KICK-BACKS TO ABRAMOFF: The complaint filed by the FBI accuses Safavian of making "repeated false statements to government officials and investigators" about a golf trip with Abramoff to Scotland in 2002, when Safavian was chief of staff at the Bush administration's General Services Administration. In that position, "ethics rules flatly prohibited the receipt of a gift from any person seeking an official action by the agency," and before the golf trip, Safavian assured GSA ethics officers in writing that Abramoff "has no business before GSA." In truth, Safavian was already actively assisting Abramoff "acquire control of two federally managed properties in the Washington area;" a 40-acre plot that became the campus for a Hebrew school Abramoff founded, and office space that Abramoff was seeking to lease for his Indian tribal clients. Indeed, on the very same day Safavian sent the letter to the GSA ethics office, "he sent an e-mail to Abramoff from his home computer, advising him how to 'lay out a case for this lease.'" The day before he departed to Scotland, Safavian "arranged a meeting for Abramoff's wife and business partner with officials at GSA" to tour of one of the properties -- a tour that Abramoff suggested after being shown a map of the space in Safavian's office. And in an email to a colleague, Abramoff himself explained why he'd invited Safavian on the golfing trip: "Total business angle. He is new (chief of staff) of GSA."

TRAINED BY THE MASTER: "Like Abramoff, Safavian is a veteran Washington player," the Washington Post reports. The two worked closely together at the lobbying firm Preston, Gates & Ellis, where "Abramoff schooled Safavian" and where they "jointly represented a broad swath of gambling interests." The two also held Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure (part of the Shaw Group) as a client, which is now represented by former FEMA chief and 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign manager Joe Allbaugh. (The Securities and Exchange Committee has launched an investigation into the Shaw Group for possible accounting irregularities, Newsweek reported this weekend. Shaw scored a $100 million no-bid Katrina contract "before the flood waters receded.") Safavian moved on to found Janus Merritt, a top-end lobbying firm, with "Abramoff's college roommate and conservative maverick Grover Norquist."

THE BUSH CONNECTION: Some of Jack Abramoff's most heinous work was on behalf of the government of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory between Hawaii and the Philippines. Human "brokers" bring thousands there to work as sex slaves and in cramped sweatshop garment factories where clothes (complete with "Made in USA" tag) are made for several brand names. Working with Safavian, Abramoff lobbied various public officials, particularly Rep. Tom DeLay, to prevent any crack-down on the worker abuse on the island. In January 2001, when President Bush entered office, Abramoff wrote island officials, "Our standing with the new administration promises to be solid as several friends of the [Marianas] will soon be taking high-ranking positions in the Administration." He was right. Two members of Abramoff's lobbying team subsequently received positions in the Bush White House, one as assistant secretary of labor, and another -- David Safavian -- as chief of staff to the General Services Administration. In the first 10 months of Bush's presidency, Abramoff and his lobbying team "logged nearly 200 contacts with the new administration." They pressed for "friendly hires" and lax labor laws with officials as high up as Attorney General John Ashcroft and policy advisers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, and it apparently worked: the islands "fended off proposals in 2001 to extend the U.S. minimum wage to island workers and gained at least $2 million more in federal aid from the administration." By mid-2003, Abramoff "had raised at least $100,000 for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, becoming one of Bush's famed 'pioneers.'"

THE MIKE BROWN OF CONTRACT PROCUREMENT: Two weeks after Safavian was confirmed in June 2004, Steven Kelman, the federal procurement administrator under President Clinton, told Government Executive magazine that Safavian "doesn't have a lot of background in procurement, so the hope is that he's a good learner." Allan Burman, another former procurement chief, agreed: "I don't know where David Safavian comes out on [acquisition reform]." Even Angela Styles, who held the top acquisition post in the Bush administration until September 2003, said Safavian had "no apparent philosophy" on procurement issues.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Safavian's arrest also places a spotlight on his wife, Jennifer Safavian, who works for Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA). Davis chairs the House Government Reform Committee, and Jennifer Safavian serves as chief counsel for oversight and investigations (she reportedly "has signed a recusal agreement that will keep her from looking into OMB and procurement matters"). Nevertheless, according to Hill columnist Josh Marshall, Rep. Davis pushed through several "made-to-order crony-empowerment (a.k.a., contracting deregulation and streamlining) provisions" in the Katrina emergency funding bills. When David Safavian was first nominated, the Federal Times warned that if he were confirmed, "it would be difficult to believe - if only because of appearances - that he or his wife's committee is acting independently of the other as each tends to the integrity of the federal procurement process."

- Stuart Weintraub