Appeals court orders new trial in Abramoff scandal
Federal prosecutors suffered a setback on Tuesday when an appeals court tossed the convictions of one of the players in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

David Safavian, a former lobbyist who once represented the National Indian Gaming Association and gaming tribes, was the only person connected to the scandal to go to trial. All of the other players pleaded guilty.

Safavian, on the other hand, maintained his innocence. But a jury didn't believe him and found him guilty of four counts, including a charge that he lied to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about his relationship with Abramoff.

Safavian was sentenced to 18 months in prison and two years of supervised released. He was released on bond so he could pursue an appeal.

In a unanimous decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rewarded the effort by granting Safavian a new trial. The court reversed the convictions on two counts -- meaning he can't be tried again on charges of withholding information from government investigators.

The court vacated Safavian's conviction on three other counts, so the government will be able to try him again. Still standing is the charge related to the Senate committee.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the presumptive Republican nominee for president, led the committee's investigation of Abramoff. He held a series of hearings from September 2004 through November 2005 to look into Abramoff's bilking of tribal clients.

McCain has since adopted a strict policy against accepting donations from tribes and has restricted the involvement of lobbyists within his presidential campaign.

Safavian wasn't representing any tribes at the time of the investigation. He was employed by the Bush administration, first as chief of staff at the General Services Administration and later as an official at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

McCain's investigators asked Safavian about a lavish golf trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland in August 2002 that came as Abramoff sought control of two government properties. Court documents in Safavian's case show that Abramoff wanted to "use" one of his tribal clients to land a prized property near the White House.

Nothing ever came of either deal but federal prosecutors pursued Safavian based on the statements he made to investigators and the committee about the trip, which was partially funded by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, whom Abramoff had promised to help with gaming issues. Abramoff subsequently pleaded guilty to defrauding his tribal clients and to bank fraud.

Safavian's relationship with Abramoff began in the mid-1990s, when Abramoff started to build his tribal practice. Both worked at the same firm, where Abramoff rose to prominence by charging tribes $500 an hour with promises of access to Republicans in Washington, D.C.

In 1999, Safavian established his own firm called Janus-Merritt Strategies with Grover Norquist, a anti-tax crusader and Abramoff ally. That same year, Norquist appeared at a "briefing" held by the Senate committee to talk about taxation and tribes, one of Abramoff's pet issues.

Safavian soon registered to lobby for NIGA on gaming and tax issues [Registration Form]. NIGA spent less than $10,000 on the firm from January 1 through June 30 [Mid-Year Report] and about $40,000 in work for NIGA from July 1 through December 31 of 1999 [Year-End Report].

In 2000, NIGA spent $60,000 on Safavian's firm from January 1 through June 30 [Mid-Year Report] and another $60,000 from July 1 through December 31 [Year-End Report]

NIGA later decried the exploitation of tribes but denied being involved with Abramoff.

In 2000, Safavian and his firm registered to lobby for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians on gaming and Indian issues [Registration Form]. The tribe spent about $60,000 on the firm from January 1 through June 30 [Mid-Year Report] and $100,000 on the firm from July 1 through December 31 [Year-End Report].

Safavian took a leave of absence from his lobbying firm in 2001 to work for Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), an opponent of all forms of gaming. Cannon soon started accepting contributions from gaming tribes and became involved in Indian gaming issues despite his views.

The D.C. Circuit opinion was written by Judge A. Raymond Randolph The three-judge panel included Judge Harry T. Edwards and Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a new member of the court who has written opinions against tribal interests.

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