WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department yesterday won its first trial in the probe of influence peddler Jack Abramoff, convicting a former Bush administration official in a case that touched on questionable behavior by members of Congress.
A jury found that David Safavian had hidden details of his relationship with Abramoff from a General Services Administration ethics lawyer, the GSA's inspector general's office, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and that he had obstructed the inspector general .
Safavian, former chief of staff for the GSA , could face up to five years in prison on each of those four counts. He was acquitted of obstructing the Senate probe.
The guilty verdict is expected to give a boost to a wide-ranging federal investigation that includes lawmakers, their aides, and members of the Bush administration.
``The message of this verdict is clear: In answering questions posed by Congress and by federal agencies, public officials have the same obligation as does the public for which they serve -- to tell the truth," said Alice Fisher, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division.
In Miami, a judge granted Abramoff and former business partner Adam Kidan another three months before they must begin serving prison sentences for fraud convictions stemming from the purchase of a gambling boat fleet. Abramoff also faces sentencing in Washington on federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion, and mail fraud.
In persuading a jury to convict Safavian, prosecutors introduced a photograph of Representative Robert W. Ney, an Ohio Republican , and Abramoff standing next to a private jet that whisked them and other members of a golfing party to Scotland for five days at the storied St. Andrews Old Course. Safavian was in the photo, too, as were two of Ney's aides who also went on the Abramoff-organized junket.
Recent Justice Department court papers said Ney engaged in 16 actions on behalf of Abramoff at the same time the congressman and his staff members were accepting gifts from the lobbyist.
In response to yesterday's verdict, Ney's office attributed Ney's problems to ``the lies and deception of Jack Abramoff."
Ney ``has never, at any point, engaged in any improper, unethical, or illegal activity" and the Safavian case ``had absolutely nothing to do with Congressman Ney," his office said. Prosecutors never called Abramoff to testify, instead relying on e-mail traffic to detail the relationship between the lobbyist and Safavian.
Safavian testified that he and Abramoff were longtime friends and that he was trying to do the right thing by seeking a GSA ethics opinion on whether he could go on the Scotland trip.