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June 20th, 2006:

Safavian convicted

The first trial connected to the Jack Abramoff scandals has ended with a conviction.

Former White House official David Safavian was convicted of hiding his aid to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and obstructing an inquiry into their trip to Scotland, in the first trial stemming from an influence-peddling probe.

A federal jury in Washington today found Safavian, 38, guilty of three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing justice. He was acquitted of another obstruction charge. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Safavian plans to appeal.

The verdict is a victory for the Justice Department’s strategy of relying on e-mail messages between Abramoff and Safavian to prove guilt. Without calling Abramoff to the witness stand, prosecutors Peter Zeidenberg and Nathaniel Edmonds painted Safavian as a public servant led astray by lavish gifts.

“The e-mails certainly played a very large, maybe more important, role than they should have in this case,” Safavian’s attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, told reporters outside the federal courthouse after the verdict. “Mr. Abramoff loomed large, and his absence loomed larger than his presence.”

[…]

“Abramoff is at the heart of this thing,” said Greg Wallance, a former federal prosecutor and now a lawyer at the New York firm Kaye Scholer. Safavian “is one of the spokes,” he said prior to the verdict.

Where might those spokes lead?

The Safavian case stems from an August 2002 trip Abramoff arranged for a group to visit Scotland’s famed St. Andrews golf course. Abramoff added on three nights in London, where guests stayed in $500-a-night rooms at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Abramoff chartered a private jet at a cost of more than $91,000 for the nine-person outing. Besides Abramoff, his son, two fellow lobbyists and Safavian, the group included Christian activist Ralph Reed, Ohio Republican Representative Bob Ney and two Ney aides, Will Heaton and Paul Vinovich.

Ralph Reed and Bob Ney. Couldn’t happen to a finer pair. Enjoy reading the papers today, fellas.

Safavian’s attorney is upset about an aspect of this case, which I don’t quite understand.

Van Gelder had fought the introduction of hundreds of e- mails into evidence, arguing that Abramoff should appear on the witness stand to show whether they were valid. The decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to allow the e-mails into evidence without any testimony by Abramoff will play a role in the fight to overturn the verdict, she said.

Why is this even an issue? You don’t need Jack Abramoff to establish that emails were sent from his account to David Safavian. Is Van Gelder saying that unless Abramoff testifies that he himself really did write those emails, we can’t be sure that he did? Yes, it’s possible someone could hijack his account, but c’mon. And did Safavian testify that he didn’t receive these emails, or that they couldn’t have come from Abramoff? If not, why not? I’m confused.

At the time, Safavian served as chief of staff at the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees government land. Before the trip, he sent an e-mail to a GSA ethics official asking how he should treat the offer from Abramoff of a free ride on the jet. He told the ethics official that Abramoff “has no business before GSA.”

Prosecutors said that statement was untrue because Safavian and Abramoff had discussed how to acquire rights to GSA properties in a series of e-mails shown to the jury. Safavian said his statement was true because Abramoff, who worked for Greenberg Traurig LLP, didn’t have any GSA contracts or bids and wasn’t likely to have any.

“It’s the e-mail that has given the Justice Department its cases,” Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, said before the verdict. “E-mail really is around forever.”

Yes, it is. Ask Ollie North, who was tripped up in part by backup tapes of the ancient mainframe system PROFs. I’ll bet those tapes still exist somewhere, too.

I still don’t understand why Van Gelder insisted that Abramoff had to testify about the emails. I just don’t see the relevance. Any lawyers want to address this?

Elsewhere, TPMuckrakers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood report on the trial, while the Hotline Blog gives us this interesting side effect:

A small marvel of the enormous media attention played to the Abramoff/Cunningham corruption scandals is the degree to which local newspapers — especially those serving communities represented by members of Congress on district-flattering committees — are strengthening their investigative coverage and have adopted a come-hell-or-high-water fearlessness about challenging pillars of their community.

The latest example: The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California.

It joins the San Bernadino Sun in creating a special section of its website to deal with Reps. Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis.

All to the good, if you ask me. If only some of the bigger papers would show such initiative.

SOS to rule on Strayhorn and Friedman

We may know as soon as Wednesday if the Texas Secretary of State has validated the petition signatures of Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, thus giving them each a slot on the November gubernatorial ballot.

Spokesman Scott Haywood said Monday that Secretary of State Roger Williams, Texas’ chief elections officer, was in the final stages of checking the validity of petition signatures that Strayhorn and Friedman submitted last month.

“Hopefully, that will be completed by Wednesday,” he said.

Each needs the signatures of 45,540 registered voters who didn’t cast ballots in either major party primary or runoff.

Strayhorn submitted more than 220,000 signatures and Friedman turned in about 169,000. Both campaigns admitted some signatures probably would be struck during the verification process but contended they had more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“We turned in five times the number of signatures that were required. So we’re very confident,” Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said.

If certified, Friedman and Strayhorn will join Democrat Chris Bell and Libertarian James Werner in challenging Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election.

Haywood said the secretary of state’s office also was checking the validity of petition signatures submitted by the Green Party for a statewide ballot spot. That party has to meet the same requirements as the independent candidates.

I will be utterly flabbergasted if either Strayhorn or Friedman fails to make the ballot. I always assumed they would, and I have a hard time imagining that they’d fall short after the number of signatures they turned in.

Not mentioned in this story is the status of Steve Stockman, the independent hopeful in CD22. I presume that the SOS will have something to say about that as well. I still think it’s ridiculous to have taken the same amount of time to verify 500 signatures as it did 45,000, but whatever.

Speaking of baloney:

Also pending is Strayhorn’s attempt to use the nickname “Grandma,” which she has used in political advertising, on the ballot.

Haywood said Williams also may decide that issue this week.

If Haywood and Williams can manage to keep straight faces when they announce that decision, I’ll be impressed.

Best comment on the process goes to the Pink Lady.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Roger Williams, the chief elections officer, said that they are in the final stages of validating the petition signatures submitted last month. “Hopefully, that will be completed by Wednesday,” he said. “But we’re still trying to determine how many of Strayhorn’s signatures came from her ex-husbands.”

Zing!

Rain, rain, go away

I know y’all don’t come here for weather reports, but I’ve got to say “Enough already!”

Houston escaped the heaviest rains overnight, but forecasters warned this morning that the ingredients for violent thunderstorms remained in the area.

Shortly before 5 a.m. some major rain-producing storms formed along a line just east of Houston, from Clear Lake to downtown, over the same area where Monday morning’s storms were the worst.

“For Eastern Houston that’s not a good thing at all,” said Patrick Blood, a forecaster at the Houston Galveston office of the National Weather Service.

The good news, Blood said, is that the storms appear to be moving and not stalling over a single area to provide significant localized flooding.

Prior to these storms, eastern Houston received only a tenth of an inch overnight. The heaviest rains in Harris County fell to the north, where Kingwood received about 2 inches. The Woodlands received about 1 inch of rain.

Forecasters still believe the storms could produce significant rainfall in the Houston area this morning, but downgraded their expectations from isolated totals of up to 10 inches to 3 to 4 inches. About 1 inch should fall over the area between now and noon, Blood said. A flash flood warning remains in effect for Harris County until 7 a.m.

Cripes. And to think we were worried about drought conditions earlier this year. (Some parts of Texas still are.)

At least one good thing has come out of all this.

It was hardly a dry run, but Monday’s heavy rain gave local emergency officials practice in a real and dangerous weather event — though one less widespread and destructive than a hurricane.

At the Houston Emergency Center, for example, officials recorded 38 percent more emergency calls than typical for a Monday morning, many of them from motorists stranded by high water.

The center, which dispatches the city’s police, fire and emergency medical service, took about 7,500 calls from midnight to 2 p.m., up by almost 2,100 over an average Monday volume for that time period.

HEC spokesman Joe Laud said the center handled the increased volume, which spiked around 7 a.m., even though some employees couldn’t get to the North Shepherd facility for the morning shift change.

The situation, and the improvisation it required, should help the center’s workers keep a cool head later, he said.

“There are lessons learned,” he said. “We see situations like this as helping us in the future.”

He added, “It was stressful, but the personnel did a great job.”

Kudos to them all. May today be more restful. And may no one utter the words Tropical Storm Allison again any time soon.

Burnam and Dunnam on the budget

A couple of Democratic State Reps are out there on the op-ed pages making the case that what happened in the Lege this past spring did not represent success in dealing with school finance. First, Rep. Lon Burnam chides the Star Telegram for its cheerleading.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board seems to have lowered its standards for what it considers “good work” from the Legislature. Merely succeeding in passing legislation does not mean we succeeded in passing good legislation that works in the interest of the people.

The board’s kind treatment of the Republican leadership is the equivalent of “social promotion” in schools. If a student simply shows up and puts in minimum effort, he or she gets passed on to the next grade, regardless of merit. There is little merit in the legislation produced last month in Austin.

The Republican leadership basically succeeded in saddling the state with indefinite annual budget shortfalls. According to the Legislative Budget Board (of which the lieutenant governor and Texas House speaker are members), the tax plan will lose about $5 billion per year.

Miraculous tax cuts are not difficult to achieve if you take the money from future budgets. The money raised from tax increases on business, smokers and used-car sales does not come anywhere close to paying for the property tax cuts that Gov. Rick Perry promoted.

Five billion dollars is no small amount. It represents 15 percent of annual expenditures from state revenue.

This hijacking of the state government almost guarantees that Texas will face a $10 billion shortfall for the ’08-’09 biennium, precipitating a budget crisis similar to that of three years ago.

And over in Amarillo, Rep. Jim Dunnam sounds a similar theme.

How do you define success?

Is it enough that the Legislature passed bills that will keep public schools open for one more year? Or should the Legislature have taken the opportunity to craft a truly long-term solution for our broken public school finance system?

Since the end of the last special session of the Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry and several other Republican politicians have in one way or another claimed success.

For example, Perry is now running TV commercials claiming that the average Texas homeowner will receive a $2,000 cut on his or her property taxes.

But anyone even remotely familiar with our state’s property tax system knows that this claim is utterly ridiculous.

Unlike the governor, I believe that, sadly, the latest special session achieved little beyond getting us out of court temporarily. Unlike the governor, I’m not running TV commercials that make false claims in order to sell a lemon to the people of Texas. Unlike the governor, I don’t define success as just doing something – I define it as doing the right thing.

Governor Perry’s been rewarded with an approval bounce from SurveyUSA, so whatever the truthiness of his ads, they have probably done what he hoped they would do. I wonder, though, if people begin to use property tax calculators and come to realize that they ain’t getting a $2K cut no matter how you slice it if some of that bounce will flatten out. We’ll see.

US290, meet I-10

Those of you who live, work, and/or commute along the US290 corridor, I hope you’ve been paying attention to the Katy Freeway construction, because you’ll be experiencing it soon.

Proposed improvements to U.S. 290 and Hempstead Road will affect a long swath of properties along the roadways, according to a study by Mark Sikes, a principal with Lewis Realty Advisors.

The real estate appraiser and consultant said the proposal will affect some 700 parcels, as the Texas Department of Transportation acquires additional right of way to expand the roads.

“It’s going to be just like I-10,” said Sikes, referring to the businesses and landowners that were displaced because of the expansion.

Sikes, who helps owners negotiate fair values for their properties, said the expansion primarily will affect commercial parcels.

The Houston District of the Transportation Department, along with the Federal Highway Administration and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, are moving forward with a long-range plan to reconstruct the U.S. 290 corridor from the 610 Loop to FM 2920. Property along Hempstead Road will also be affected, as a tollway or HOV lane is planned.

Still, the reconstruction project is many years off.

The department said the land acquisition won’t begin until around 2008, according to the latest newsletter posted on its Web site.

The thing is, much of what is currently on 290 is new. When I worked out at 290 and Hollister in the early 90s, there really wasn’t much in the way of development along that freeway. Once you got past 34th Street, there was a lot of empty space. Really made for slim pickings at lunch, let me tell you. With all the new development that’s there now, I have to wonder just how expensive that land acquisition is going to get.

Now, if Hempstead is more or less as it was 15 years ago, and the bulk of the construction is there, then it won’t be as bad. There was even less on Hempstead, and I don’t think that’s changed as drastically. Can’t say for sure, as it’s been awhile since I’ve taken that road, but if that’s the main target then maybe this project won’t cost a godawful amount. We’ll see.

On a side note, let me offer my congratulations to Chron writer Nancy Sarnoff on her new job. I too will miss her Sunday real estate column – I got quite a bit of blog fodder out of it. And thanks to Houstonist for the link.

Twenty days

Greg notes that the twenty-day period in which Governor Perry has to call an emergency special election to fill a Congressional vacancy is ticking away with no indication that one will be called. He wonders if there may be some extra risk associated with that position now that there’s a lawsuit that could slow down the replacement selection process. Be sure to read through the comments on that post – my thanks to Greg and Ken for the fine discussion.

Speaking of the lawsuit, Federal Judge Sam Sparks has set a hearing date of Monday, June 26.

Judge Sam Sparks left in place a temporary restraining order that expires Thursday, though he did not extend it. Sparks is expected to hear evidence and lawyers’ arguments at the hearing.

Democrats went to court earlier this month to prevent the state Republican Party from replacing DeLay on the ballot. A state district judge blocked the process with the temporary order. Attorneys for the Republicans then had the case moved to federal court.

Though Republicans plan to initiate steps to fill the GOP vacancy on the ballot once the temporary order expires, the process wouldn’t be complete by the time of the court hearing, said GOP lawyer Jim Bopp.

I guess that’s good news for the Republicans, since at least they can get started. I’m not sure what it means for the suit itself. I’ve put a statement from the Texas Democratic Party beneath the fold.

Meanwhile, here is what DeLay has been doing with his free time. Perhaps someone should have bought him a US Atlas as a going-away present. The candidate he shilled for lost, by the way.

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