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Ex-Bush official sentenced to 18 months in lobbying scandal

Judge bemoans Capitol culture of corruption

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge sentenced a former Bush administration official to 18 months in prison in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal yesterday -- after delivering a 30-minute eulogy for good government in Washington.

"There was a time when people came to Washington because they thought government could be helpful to people," said US District Judge Paul L. Friedman. "People came to Washington asking not what government could do for them and their friend, but what they could do for the public."

David Safavian, a former chief of staff for the General Service Administration, was sentenced on obstruction and concealment charges for lying to investigators about his relationship with Abramoff.

Safavian wept in court as he asked for leniency, but Friedman said the former bureaucrat had become part of Washington's culture of corruption, where politicians listen to campaign donors and lobbyists while farming out to staff members the job of writing laws.

Abramoff, a once-powerful lobbyist, shook Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House when he pleaded guilty to corruption in January and began cooperating with an FBI investigation.

The case, which has become an election-year liability for Republicans, snared its first member of Congress this month when Representative Robert W. Ney, Republican of Ohio, pleaded guilty, admitting that he took expensive gifts and trips from Abramoff in return for official favors.

Friedman said that he believed Safavian was a good person and that he could not understand why he got involved with Abramoff.

"Maybe it's hard to resist. Maybe it's hanging out with the big boys," Friedman said. "I'm not sure."

Safavian, who also worked in the White House budget office, gave Abramoff details about GSA projects and offered advice on dealing with the agency. He also accepted a cut-rate golf trip to Scotland aboard a private jet.

"Rather than putting the interest of the public first, he put the interest of Jack Abramoff first," prosecutor Peter R. Zeidenberg said.

Safavian apologized yesterday for giving the appearance of impropriety, but said it was not fraudulent. He said the lobbyist used and manipulated him.

"Yes, Jack Abramoff was a friend, but he wasn't my co conspirator and I wasn't his," Safavian said. "There was no conspiracy to defraud anyone, least of all the taxpayers."

That wasn't what Friedman wanted to hear. He said Safavian should take responsibility for his lies.

"Get up here and tell me: 'I agree I concealed. I agree I obstructed justice,"' Friedman said. "I don't believe he's done that."

Safavian argued for no jail time, but prosecutors asked for a three-year sentence, saying Safavian lied on the stand. Friedman called Safavian's testimony that he didn't know the value of the Scotland trip and barely read an ethics opinion "incredible" and "hard to believe," but he said it wasn't perjury.

With the lobbyist's help, the Abramoff investigation continues, and prosecutors have said there are other targets.

Two former aides to Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, a former House majority leader, have also pleaded guilty, as has Ney's former chief of staff.

Additionally, Roger Stillwell, a former Interior Department official, pleaded guilty in August to a misdemeanor charge for not reporting tickets he received from Abramoff.

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