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Trial of Ex-White House Aide Heads to Jury

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal jury is set to begin deliberations today in a corruption trial. It's the first trial in the scandal involving ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Defendant David Safavian is a long-time friend of Abramoff, and was a high-ranking Bush administration appointee before he was arrested last year. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

The government and David Safavian's defense agree on two basic elements. First, Safavian went of a junket in 2002 with Jack Abramoff, Republican Congressman Bob Ney, of Ohio, and political consultant Ralph Reed. Abramoff arranged and financed the trip; it included a charter jet, a luxury hotel in London and four days of golf at St. Andrew's Scotland. That's a peak experience for avid golfers, a group that includes Safavian.

Element number two is that at the time Safavian was the new Chief of Staff at the General Services Administration. GSA manages federal real estate. Abramoff was trying to develop two deals with GSA. Safavian gave him extensive email advice on how to proceed. The legal questions are almost technical, whether Safavian lied to authorities about both the cost and the purpose of the trip, and - listen carefully here - whether Abramoff was, quote, "doing business or seeking to do business with GSA.”

Safavian's lawyer Barbara Van Gelder summed up yesterday. She called Safavian an innocent man who's been caught up in this Abramoff fever. After all, it was Abramoff whose million dollars scams of Indian tribes started the big investigation.

Abramoff and four others have pleaded guilty. In fact, the FBI initially tried to get Safavian to plead. But as an agent testified earlier in the trial, Safavian said he didn't have anyone he could throw under the bus. But however Safavian got to the courthouse, he didn't catch many breaks there. He said he had paid his share of the trip by giving Abramoff a check for $3,100.

Prosecutors produced a bill for the charter plan, $92,000; and they backed Safavian into a corner where he said the $400 a night hotel at the 18th hole at St. Andrews wasn't really any nicer than say the Marriot he stayed at in San Antonio, Texas. One juror seemed to snicker at the testimony.

As for whether Abramoff was doing business with the GSA, prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg asked the jury yesterday, do you think you could call up the GSA and say, set up a meeting with the top brass and get this property for me? Jury trials are notoriously hard to predict, but at the end of the day yesterday, family and friends gathered around Safavian outside the courtroom; they shook his hand and they hugged him. He looked like a man who had lost something.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.