- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006


A government ethics official yesterday testified that she might not have authorized a Bush administration executive to accept free airfare for a golf vacation if she had known he was advising lobbyist Jack Abramoff about federal properties.

Instead, Eugenia Ellison, an ethics officer and lawyer at the General Services Administration, told a U.S. District Court jury that she relied on GSA Chief of Staff David Safavian’s assurance that the donor was a friend who had no business before the government property management agency.

In the first trial growing out of the Abramoff scandal, Mr. Safavian is facing five counts of lying to investigators about assisting his former partner Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.

“I concluded it was not a [prohibited] gift because it was not given to him because of his position or by a prohibited source, but from a friend,” Miss Ellison said of her decision to let Mr. Safavian accept free airfare to the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland from Abramoff in the summer of 2002.

Miss Ellison testified she would have wanted to know before issuing her approval that Abramoff was seeking to have a GSA property in Maryland transferred either through congressionally authorized sale or by a short-term lease to a school he had established.

She also said she would have wanted to know that Mr. Safavian was assisting Abramoff in getting a letter from members of Congress to GSA about its plans for redeveloping the Old Post Office in Washington, a project Abramoff wanted to help win for one of his clients.

Prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds asked her whether each of those pieces of information could have altered her approval. Each time, she replied, “Yes.”

Mr. Safavian’s request for permission did not identify Abramoff as the donor, but said his friend was a lawyer and lobbyist who had no business dealings with GSA. In her opinion, Miss Ellison recapped Mr. Safavian’s assurances that neither Abramoff nor his company was doing or seeking business with GSA.

Mr. Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, got Miss Ellison to acknowledge that she had not spoken directly with Mr. Safavian and assumed she obtained Abramoff’s name, his firm’s name and the assurance that neither was seeking GSA business from her boss, GSA General Counsel Raymond McKenna, who had forwarded Mr. Safavian’s initial request to her.

Miss Van Gelder also got Miss Ellison to concede that Mr. Safavian was not required to seek advice before accepting gifts.

Miss Van Gelder has asserted that Mr. Safavian, who initially said he would pay only for meals, hotels and greens fees, later decided to pay for the airfare too. She has said Mr. Safavian’s $3,100 check covered what Abramoff told him was his share of the chartered jet airfare and the rest.

Prosecutors have introduced details of $500-a-night hotel rooms, $100 rounds of drinks and $400 rounds of golf to suggest that it was obvious that each traveler’s costs were much higher.

On Tuesday, convicted lobbyist Neil Volz, who was a partner of Abramoff’s, testified that during the weeks before the trip, Mr. Safavian provided insider information and advice on how Abramoff could get GSA approval for two of his projects.

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