I just got back from watching the opening arguments in the Safavian trial. There were some entertaining moments — like when the judge forgot to swear in the jury, or when he blew up at a guy whose cell phone rang when court was in session. But in general, the lesson learned was this: the only thing more boring than golf is a trial about golf.
Paul’s breakdown yesterday was essentially right: the prosecution argued that the case is about “lying, concealment and misleading.” The defense countered that Safavian never lied and never misled. They’ll bat that back and forth for a while, I suspect — much as Paul predicted. Although, it looks like the defense has at least one strategy that could spell danger for prosecutors not just in this trial but others in the Abramoff scandal roll-up.
At the heart of the case is Safavian’s motive for allegedly lying to investigators and obstructing probes. That motive, prosecutors seem to believe, is his overwhelming love of golf.
First, they say Safavian lied in order to go on that infamous golf trip to St. Andrews, Scotland with Abramoff, associates and lawmakers. Second, they say he loves golf so much that he was susceptible to Abramoff’s seductions: “dangling” the prospect of working as a lobbyist at Jack’s firm, “where [Safavian] could make a great deal of money, and play a great deal of golf,” prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg explained.
So: Did Safavian help Abramoff with GSA property deals and lie about it, presumably so that he could a) play golf in Scotland while at the GSA, and b) play golf anywhere he pleased after landing a cushy job with Abramoff?
I don’t know. I don’t know how much he loves golf. But it became clear that a number of others in the courtroom — myself included — did not love golf at all.By the end of the prosecution’s half-hour opening statement, at least one reporter had begun “resting his eyes.” Yawning was visible in the press section of the gallery. (By my count, the jury held out for an admirable hour and fifty minutes, succumbing only after the defense had begun its statement.) I felt lucky to be leaving after the first arguments.
Safavian sat at the defense table, and took copious notes throughout the proceedings. Behind him sat his wife, sister, and other supporters. At an early break, a larger man gave him a handshake and a hug and asked how he was doing. “Hangin’ tough,” Safavian murmured.
Abbe Lowell, Abramoff’s lawyer, was there to watch the prosecution’s opening statement. In idle chatter, he agreed with a New York Times reporter’s world-weary comparison of the blandness of the venue — an airy, well-lit courtroom in the new annex of the J. Barrett Prettyman District Court Building — to a Hyatt hotel.
The defense opening statement was delivered by Barbara van Gelder, one of the best federal prosecutors-turned-pricey-defense-lawyers D.C. has to offer. Safavian was a good friend and a dupe to Abramoff, she said, and he was “proud” of his friendship with the lobbyist. “They had a common interest in golf and racquetball,” she told the jury, and made the by-now evident observation that in this trial, “you’ll hear a lot about golf.”
Aside from rebutting a number of the prosecution’s points, van Gelder signaled she was preparing to go after Neil Volz. Volz is a former Abramoff colleague and onetime aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH). Volz also went on the Scotland trip, and he’s already cut a plea deal with prosecutors, which van Gelder wasted no time pointing out will reduce his stay in prison. His testimony is expected to be one of the highlights of the trial.
“Neil Volz is crawling out of jail on David Safavian’s back,” she declared. As proof, she asserted, Volz met with the Feds seven times, and each time his version of Safavian’s involvement with Abramoff grew worse, which she cast as an effort by Volz to twist the truth to please prosecutors.
Aside from the verdict, the fate of Volz’s testimony may be one of the most interesting details of the trial. If Safavian’s legal team can successfully cast doubt on Volz’s motives or recollection, it could be a harbinger of how poorly testimony from other Abramoff plea-dealers might fare. That is, if anybody stays awake for it.