WASHINGTON - The Justice Department overreached in prosecuting a former Bush administration official in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday as it dismissed some charges and ordered a new trial on others.
The decision overturns the conviction of David Safavian, the former chief of staff for the General Services Administration and the only person in the four-year scandal who opted to go to trial rather than accept a government plea deal.
He had faced 18 months in prison.
The ruling also forces prosecutors to decide whether to bring a new case or accept defeat in what had been an early victory in the corruption investigation.
Safavian was convicted of lying to Senate investigators, GSA ethics officials, and the agency's inspector general about his relationship with Abramoff.
The lobbyist was interested in government-owned properties and Safavian provided inside information about them.
He also joined Abramoff on a now-notorious 2002 golf junket to Scotland, along with Representative Bob Ney and his chief of staff. The trip became a symbol of Abramoff's access to Capitol Hill and the lavish gifts he used to maintain it.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out two charges against Safavian, saying there was no legal basis for them.
The court said Safavian was not required to volunteer information about his relationship with Abramoff when cooperating with the inspector general's investigation or when asking for a nonbinding ethics opinion.
"The government essentially asks us to hold that once an individual starts talking, he cannot stop," the appeals court wrote. "No case stands for that proposition."
The court also overturned Safavian's conviction on charges he lied to Senate investigators when he told them Abramoff did not do business with the GSA.
Safavian argued that he was being honest, since Abramoff had no contracts with the agency.
The appeals court said the trial judge should have allowed Safavian to call a specialist to discuss how government officials view this issue. Such testimony would have to be allowed if prosecutors decide to bring the case again.
"The government was overzealous in its original prosecution," attorney Barbara Van Gelder, who defended Safavian at trial, said. "I hope they exercise more discretion in deciding whether to retry him."
"We hope that the government, having now successfully prosecuted a range of other officials, will not feel it's necessary to come back and knock on David's door," said Safavian's appellate attorney, Lawrence S. Robbins.
The Justice Department said only that it was reviewing the opinion yesterday and did not say what it planned to do.