Scandal Visits the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonopost.com
Tuesday, September 20, 2005; 12:24 PM

The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal reached into the White House yesterday, picking off President Bush's top procurement official -- who just barely had time to resign before being arrested.

The federal charges against David Safavian stem from his tenure as chief of staff of the General Services Administration, predating his arrival at the White House a year ago. But his arrest nonetheless draws renewed attention to the ongoing corruption and influence-peddling inquiry swirling around Abramoff, a lobbyist well known for his connections to conservative Republicans in the White House and Congress.

And for a White House so desperate to build public confidence in its ability to respond to the Gulf Coast disaster, it doesn't exactly help that the man who up until Friday was overseeing contracting policy for the multi-billion dollar relief effort has now been charged with lying and obstructing a criminal investigation.

R. Jeffrey Smith and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's top federal procurement official resigned Friday and was arrested yesterday, accused of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government. It was the first criminal complaint filed against a government official in the ongoing corruption probe related to Abramoff's activities in Washington.

"The complaint, filed by the FBI, alleges that David H. Safavian, 38, a White House procurement official involved until last week in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, made repeated false statements to government officials and investigators about a golf trip with Abramoff to Scotland in 2002."

Philip Shenon and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "The White House said in a statement that Mr. Safavian had resigned on Friday and that 'we, of course, will cooperate fully with the Justice Department in this investigation.' A spokesman said the White House would have no further comment on the arrest. . . .

"His wife, Jennifer Safavian, is chief counsel for oversight and investigations on the House Government Reform Committee, which is responsible for overseeing government procurement and is, among other things, expected to conduct the Congressional investigation into missteps after Hurricane Katrina."

Shenon and Kornblut note: "The Justice Department did not reveal details of Mr. Safavian's arrest, including where it occurred. The department also did not say why the criminal charges were brought directly by prosecutors, rather than by the Washington grand jury investigating Mr. Abramoff. The Justice Department often bypasses a grand jury when a criminal case is brought together hurriedly or when there is fear that a defendant may try to flee."

Just recently, Safavian was the administration's point man when it came to one of the controversial measures in the White House's recent $51.8 billion supplemental aid request: The boosting from $15,000 to $250,000 of the upper limit for purchases made with government-issued credit cards. Critics said the change will allow card holders to circumvent important measures to curb fraud and cronyism.

Here is the Justice Department's press release on Safavian's arrest.

Here is Stephen Barr 's January profile of Safavian in The Washington Post.

The Project on Government Oversight blog is keeping close tabs on the story. So is Talking Points Memo .

Abramoff's White House Connections

In addition to Safavian, Abramoff is known to have close ties to at least one other key White House official: Susan B. Ralston, Karl Rove's omnipresent assistant and gatekeeper.

Here's Peter H. Stone writing in the National Journal last year: "As presidential adviser Karl Rove set up shop in the West Wing in 2001, he was looking for an assistant to serve as the trusted gatekeeper of his new fiefdom. Superlobbyist and Republican fundraiser Jack Abramoff was happy to lend a hand. Abramoff knew just the right person for the job: his own assistant, Susan Ralston. She interviewed with Rove and got the position."

Ralston told Filipinas magazine last year: "Working for Karl Rove is like being at the center of the Bush universe -- I am fortunate to be where I am, and be involved in much of what goes on at the White House."

Ralston was in the news most recently for being summoned to testify in July before the grand jury investigating the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Rove, of course, is one of the central figures in that investigation.

New Appointee Troubles

Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is seeking to appoint a lawyer with little immigration or customs experience to head the troubled law enforcement agency that handles those issues, prompting sharp criticism from some employee groups, immigration advocates and homeland security experts.

"The push to appoint Julie Myers to head the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, comes in the midst of intense debate over the qualifications of department political appointees involved in the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"After working as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years, Myers held a variety of jobs over the past four years at the White House and at the departments of Commerce, Justice and Treasury, though none involved managing a large bureaucracy. . . .

"Myers also was an associate under independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for about 16 months and has most recently served as a special assistant to President Bush handling personnel issues."

The White House yesterday also announced the renomination of two men who were granted recess appointments -- U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman -- as well as the last-minute withdrawal of Terry Neese to be director of the Mint.

Poll Watch

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Americans' views of President Bush and his leadership have soured in the wake of dismay over the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, the course of the Iraq war and the future of the economy.

"Bush's rating for handling each of those issues dropped to his lowest yet in a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Assessments of his personal qualities also fell: For the first time, a majority says he isn't a strong and decisive leader.

"Bush's overall approval rating is 40%, equaling a previous low. His disapproval is 58%, a new high. . . .

" 'Bush stands at a precipice,' says Carroll Doherty of the non-partisan Pew Research Center. 'He's lost ground among independents. He seems to be starting to lose ground among his own party. And he lost the Democrats a long time ago.' "

Here is the transcript and video of CNN analyst William Schneider discussing the poll results with Wolf Blitzer.

Blitzer: "Bill, how do these new numbers compare with other past two-term presidents?

Schneider: "Wolf, let's see.

"At this point in their second terms, Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower were all about 60 percent job approval. As you just reported, Bush is at 40. That puts him in the company of Lyndon Johnson, after a summer of urban violence and escalation in Vietnam, and just above Richard Nixon in the middle of Watergate.


Here are the complete poll results .

Consider some of these responses.

* Just your best guess, do you think George W. Bush has taken steps to help victims of Hurricane Katrina mostly because he sincerely cares about the victims, or mostly for political reasons? Sincerely cares about the victims, 42 percent; Political reasons, 56 percent.

* In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not? Yes, a mistake, 59 percent; No, not, 39 percent.

* Which comes closest to your view about what the U.S. should now do about the number of U.S. troops in Iraq? Send more troops, 8 percent; Keep as now, 26 percent; Withdraw some troops, 33 percent; Withdraw all troops, 30 percent.

* If you had to choose, which of the following would you say would be the best way for the government to pay for the problems caused by Hurricane Katrina? Increase federal budget deficit, 15 percent; Raise taxes, 17 percent; Cut spending for war in Iraq, 54 percent; Cut spending for domestic programs, 7 percent.

* As you may know, some people have called for an investigation into the problems the government had in responding to Hurricane Katrina. Who would you rather see conduct this investigation by an independent panel or Congress? Independent panel, 81 percent; Congress 18 percent.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET., eager to respond to your questions and comments .

The Opposition Speaks

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush came under withering criticism for his handling of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) charging that the storm exposed the administration's incompetence and ideological blinders and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) asserting that even in its response, the administration backs policies that support the privileged over the working poor.

"Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said in a speech at Brown University that Michael D. Brown, who quit under fire as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's director, exemplified the administration's failures over the past five years. . . .

"Edwards, who has made poverty a signature issue, said the plight of many of those displaced by the flooding in New Orleans underscores an urgent need for the nation to attack the problem again. He offered policy initiatives aimed at ensuring that Americans who work full time do not fall below the poverty line. . . .

"The two speeches followed pointed comments along the same lines by former president Bill Clinton, who criticized the administration's response to the storm Sunday. Speaking on ABC's 'This Week,' Clinton said Bush should roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to offset the cost of rebuilding, and he asserted that the poverty exposed by the storm-forced exodus was caused in part by the administration's own policies."

Here is the full text of Kerry's speech.

"Katrina is a symbol of all this administration does and doesn't do," he said. "Michael Brown -- or Brownie as the President so famously thanked him for doing a heck of a job - Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom Delay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.' The bottom line is simple: The 'we'll do whatever it takes' administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done. . . .

"Rarely has there been a moment more urgent for Americans to step up and define ourselves again. On the line is a fundamental choice. A choice between a view that says 'you're on your own,' 'go it alone,' or 'every man for himself.' Or a different view - a different philosophy - a different conviction of governance - a belief that says our great American challenge is one of shared endeavor and shared sacrifice."

Here is the full text of Edwards's speech.

Rules of the Blame Game

Richard W. Stevenson and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President Bush has named Frances Fragos Townsend, his domestic security adviser, to lead an internal White House inquiry into the administration's performance in handling Hurricane Katrina, Scott McClellan, Mr. Bush's spokesman, said Monday. . . .

"A Republican who served in the Clinton administration's Justice Department before holding a number of jobs under Mr. Bush, Ms. Townsend has a reputation for being tough and independent. But her appointment is unlikely to mute calls from Democrats in Congress for a fully independent investigation."

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Congressional Republicans signaled Monday that they had abandoned their plan to conduct a joint House-Senate probe of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"With the joint congressional investigation apparently off the table, Republicans are planning separate House and Senate inquiries.

"But it was far from clear Monday whether the Democrats would cooperate with those efforts."

Black Minister Watch

Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "For many of the black ministers who have allied themselves with President Bush and a Republican strategy to boost the party's African American support, the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina put a severe strain on new and still-fragile bonds of trust.

"But just as some ministers had denounced a government recovery effort that seemed to leave many blacks in the gulf region behind, a number of those African American clergy say an aggressive outreach campaign by Bush and senior White House aides in recent days has begun reversing what might have been lasting political damage. . . .

"The White House outreach to its allies among black clergy has been intense and has engaged Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, chief domestic policy advisor Claude Allen, and James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."

Voucher Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "Under President Bush's plan to cover most of the cost of educating students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, parents could enroll their children in a private or religious school this year at federal expense, even if they had gone to public schools back home, administration officials said yesterday."

Administration officials initially indicated the vouchers would only be for students previously enrolled in private schools.

"Yesterday, however, as new fine print of the proposal emerged, White House and Education Department spokesmen confirmed that the government payment -- as much as $7,500 per child -- would be given for a year to any displaced family that now prefers an alternative to public schools," Goldstein writes.

"Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), ranking Democrat on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said, 'Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help that they need.' "

Supreme Court Watch

David D. Kirkpatrick and Sheryl Stolberg write in the New York Times: "The White House is reshuffling its short list of potential Supreme Court nominees with a new emphasis on finding someone who will hold up under the pressure of what is expected to be fierce confirmation battle, several Republican allies close to the process said on Monday. . . .

"Republican aides briefed on the search said the White House was looking mainly at female jurists for Justice O'Connor's seat, but it has expanded its short list and it is examining the contenders anew in the expectation of a trial by fire."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's low poll numbers have given liberals hope he'll nominate a moderate to avoid a raucous fight in the Senate."

Alternately: "Some think Bush might pick a hard-liner to keep his base happy and prevent a further drop in the polls."

Calendar Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Seeking to highlight progress after a much-criticized late start to the hurricane relief effort, Bush planned to visit Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans on Tuesday.

"He will get a briefing on Tropical Storm Rita -- which is expected to strengthen and could make landfall on the Gulf Coast -- and visit a recovering business in New Orleans.

"He reworked his schedule for Friday and Saturday in order to visit cities in Alabama, Texas and Arkansas that have taken in large numbers of Katrina evacuees."

Karl Rove Watch

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Despite President Bush's emphasis on rebuilding the gulf states after Hurricane Katrina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove found time to visit a super-exclusive conference this past weekend sponsored by leaders of Forstmann Little, the investment company, in Aspen, Colo. A White House official said Rove's appearance was 'on the books' for a long time and he decided to proceed with the trip, but the official provided no further information. However, a prominent Republican with strong connections to Capitol Hill got wind of Rove's jaunt and wasn't pleased.

" 'What the hell is Karl Rove doing there?' he asked. The GOP insider wondered whether it was appropriate for Bush's political guru to hobnob with the rich and powerful at the exclusive resort at a time when the administration is supposed to be focused on helping the victims of hurricane Katrina and showing empathy for their plight."

As I wrote in yesterday's column , the Huffington Post blog claims to have the skinny on what Rove said in his off-the-record talk.

Book Festival Protest

Poet Sharon Olds publishes in the Nation her letter to the first lady, declining her invitation to National Book Festival events in Washington this weekend because of the war with Iraq.

"I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq. . . . But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you," Olds writes.

Jumping Ship?

The American Spectator reports that Bush's ambitious second-term agenda is so dead that rumors "are flying through various departments of longtime senior Bush loyalists looking to jump, but with few opportunities in the private sector to make the jump look like anything more than desperation."

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