Safavian Trial: Guilty Verdict Was Expected, But Announcement a Surprise

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The jury in the Safavian trial woke up this morning and decided to make life hard for us reporters. And to send David Safavian to jail.

After five days of deliberations that seemed to be as stop-and-go as the Beltway during rush hour, the jury slipped a note to the judge this morning around 9:30 which said they had made up their minds.

I’m not sure a single reporter was there when the verdict — guilty on four of five counts, generally following expectations — was read. It was sent to reporters via email, and we clambered to the courthouse to get a few questions to the lawyers and jury before they disappeared.

I may have been the last on the scene. By the time I made it to the sixth floor of the courthouse annex, where the trial had been held, a clutch of reporters was waiting. Moments later, Safavian’s defense attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, emerged from the courtroom. TV and radio reporters asked her if she’d take questions in front of the building — where they had their mics and cameras set up — and she agreed.

The clutch followed her to the bank of elevators, politely asking Van Gelder questions about the trial. An elevator arrived and she got in. The clutch followed, wedging themselves en masse into the car. Not being a big fan of crowded elevators, I let them go without me and waited for another one.

As the next elevator arrived, who came around the corner but Safavian himself, with his wife, members of his defense team and a couple others I didn’t recognize. In his by-now-trademark sober suit, he looked miserable. I had heard through the grapevine that he had privately been preparing himself for a guilty verdict, but in the courtroom he usually looked upbeat — smiling, making friendly jokes, even breaking out into a small dance at one point.

He wasn’t smiling or joking anymore. He had deep circles under his eyes. He looked me in the face as he got on the elevator. I realized it had been less than an hour since he learned he was facing a fate he had spent months of his life and many thousands of dollars trying to avoid.From the pad and pen in my hand (not to mention my lack of a shower, or even appropriate dress), I think it was obvious to Safavian I was a reporter. And looking in his eyes, it was clear to me that he had no love for my kind — if, indeed, he had any feelings about us at all in that moment.

“Any comments?” I asked.

He just looked at me. His entourage got on the elevator. His wife asked him if she could carry his briefcase; he very quietly declined her offer. The doors closed, and we rode to the first floor in silence.

* * * *

On the steps of the E. Barrett Prettyman courthouse, Van Gelder was much more expansive than her client. Speaking before a bundle of mics, a couple dozen reporters and perhaps a half-dozen television cameras, she spoke and answered questions for several minutes. Mr. Safavian, she said, was “very upset” by the verdict, and he will appeal the decision. At the moment, he’s released on his own recognizance. The jury instructions were too complicated, in her view (“It took them four hours to read the instructions!”). Noting the sunny day, she made a joke about wishing she’d brought sunscreen.

Was it a mistake for Safavian to testify? “It’s never a mistake to call your client,” Van Gelder said. “I think that’s why it took so long” for the jury to reach its verdict.

“I’ve always been perplexed why the Justice Department took out the howitzers and aimed them at Mr. Safavian,” she said at one point, mustering up some passion when speaking about her client. “Nobody deserves to have their life vivisected,” she said in another such moment.

Van Gelder confirmed that Safavian’s legal fees were “a phenomenal” amount of money, but that he was receiving minimal assistance from others. “I think he’s accepted some offers to help” from “a few good friends,” she said, but they were goodwill gestures, not “substantial” contributions.

“He’s not a man who has friends in high places,” she said of Safavian, a former White House official.

As the questions wore on, she cracked a joke at NPR reporter Peter Overby’s expense — “he’s from NPR, he gets paid by the hour.” Upon leaving the microphones, she wished a reporter good luck on behalf of his team, the Red Sox. Perhaps because, like Van Gelder, they appear to take losing in stride. Unlike her client.

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