Safavian Trial: Cross-Exam Brings Audible Snickering

I was down at the district court yesterday afternoon to watch federal prosecutors begin their cross-examination of David Safavian.

The gallery was packed with spectators. Justice Department interns, clerks for other judges in the courthouse, and lawyers squeezed onto the hard wooden benches to see how the prosecutors would treat Safavian. They got a good show.

There were audible snickers from the gallery — I’m not making this up — at some of Safavian’s answers. Some of the former White House official’s answers seemed simply too disingenuous to believe. For instance, when the prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, asked why Safavian thought Jack Abramoff had invited Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) on the weeklong luxury golf trip to Scotland and England, Safavian said, “I thought Mr. Ney was on the trip to meet with Scottish Parliament.”

(Minutes earlier, the prosecutor and Safavian had this exchange: “You were [in Scotland] on Sunday. Did you play golf?” “Yes.” “And you played Monday, correct?” “Yes.” “And you played Tuesday, correct?” “Yes.” “And Wednesday, correct?” “Yes.” “And Thursday?” Safavian couldn’t remember Thursday.)Two of the most reliable snickerers sat next to me, two very well-dressed gentlemen who denied they were lawyers but seemed to know the ins and outs of the case like experts. Every zinger from the prosecutor got a quiet laugh and a sly smile from one to the other. At Safavian’s more disingenuous answers, the men put their heads together and muttered damning trivia on the case, the way two young baseball fans might gleefully compare pitching ERAs or on-base percentages.

Safavian had spent the earlier part of the day answering questions from his lawyer, Barbara van Gelder, in which he explained that if he was guilty of anything, it was of trusting too much — when Jack Abramoff told him that his visit to Scotland and England cost a mere $3100, he accepted the figure unquestioningly. Why, then, would he have lied to ethics officials and investigators about how much the trip cost?

(In fact, the trip cost many thousands more per person. Abramoff’s chartered jet alone cost $92,000.)

The tittering (I admit, I participated) began early on in the cross-examination. Under relentless questioning, Safavian would not budge from his assertion that he expected the greens fees at St. Andrews — perhaps the most renowned golf course in the world — would not have been substantially more than the $135 charged by a top-quality course in eastern Maryland.

“When you learned the [St. Andrews] caddies got tipped $100,” the prosecutor asked, did that make Safavian wonder if the greens fees there were more than $135?

Safavian paused. “I didn’t think about it then,” he replied, “but that’s a valid point.”

The prosecutor paused and asked — with restrained but nonetheless theatrical incredulity: “That disparity just occurred to you this moment?”

Safavian conceded that yes, perhaps it did. Tittering ensued.

The chuckle monster appeared in the gallery moments later, when Safavian would not agree with the prosecutor that his caddy tips were usually paid for by the lobbyists on the trip. So the prosecutor asked Safavian if the other individuals on the trip had paid for his caddy tips.

“Did the congressman pay your caddy fees?”

“Not that I recall.”

Did Mr. Vinovich, a Ney staffer, pay them? (No.) What about Mr. Heaton, another Ney staffer? (No.)

“So it’s fair to say that if someone picked up your caddy’s fees, it was someone from [Abramoff lobbying firm] Greenberg Traurig?”

Yes, Safavian finally conceded. More quiet titters.

The prosecution had a photo-filled brochure of the hotel at which Abramoff, Ney, Safavian and the others stayed while playing golf in Scotland, which it introduced into evidence.

Zeidenberg put the first photograph on a projector, which displayed the picture — a luxurious dining room with many windows which appeared to look out on the green — on screens before the jurors and the gallery.

The prosecutor asked Safavian if the picture looked like the dining room of the hotel he stayed at. Sure, Safavian said, adding, “It looks like a typical hotel dining room.”

“Mr. Safavian,” the prosecutor said, “in your experience, that is a typical hotel dining room?” (Titters.)

A few moments later, the prosecutor flipped to another picture in the brochure, this one showing a very nice swimming pool. “Is that a typical hotel pool?” he asked. (Safavian said he never went to the pool.)

And so the afternoon went: the prosecutor asked Safavian incredulously about the details of his dealings with Abramoff — Did you really believe that? Why did you never question that? Did you ever suspect that — and Safavian sticking to his sucker story, to the amusement of many observers.

The prosecution didn’t complete his cross-examination of Safavian, so we can expect another show on Monday.