Last Monday, David Hossein Safavian, a high-ranking White House official and pal of GOP powerbroker Grover Norquist, was arrested in a federal corruption case involving lobbying bad boy Jack Abramoff. According to the FBI, Safavian repeatedly lied to federal investigators in order to cover up Abramoff’s shady dealings. He not only bent ethics rules to accompany Abramoff on a 2002 golf junket to Scotland; he also used his position as chief of staff at the General Services Administration to deliver GSA-managed land into the lobbyist’s hands.
But Safavian's not just tied to a dirty lobbyist. He's also tied to a convicted terrorist and a suspected terrorist supporter. Lobbying disclosure forms revealed last year that he has been in the employ of Abdurahman Alamoudi, an avowed supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah. Prosecutors have discovered evidence that he has links to al-Qaeda. At the time, Safavian waved aside any affiliation to Alamoudi. He insisted that he was really lobbying for a client named Jamal al Barzinji. That revelation did little to clear Safavian’s name: A federal affidavit identifies Barzinji as the ringleader of a group suspected of aiding terrorists.
What's worse, Safavian has demonstrated a pattern of concealing all these ties in order to gain access to sensitive positions in the government; and despite this pattern of dishonesty and despite serious security concerns, both the Senate and the agencies that have hired him have given him a pass.
Let’s rewind to his Senate confirmation hearings on April 29, 2004:
Safavian took his seat at the witness table in Room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Like most presidential nominees at Senate confirmation hearings, he brought family and friends for support and was expected to breeze through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Even so, Safavian had extra support in his corner that morning. Two congressmen -- one a liberal Democrat, surprisingly enough -- stopped by to cheer him on before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
"I think he will do a great job for the American people in this job," testified Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who had previously employed Safavian as a top aide. "I would like to second what Chris Cannon has said," added Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, who brought along his chief of staff and two lawyers to add to his cheering section. "We are joined with his wife and his mom, as well as his family and friends, to underscore how fine a decision has been made for this appointment," Conyers gushed. "We hope that the Senate will agree and get him to work as quickly as possible."
Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was impressed by the VIP endorsements. "When the nominee comes in with a fortification like John Conyers, you know that this is serious business, and we are going to pay a lot of attention. You, too, Mr. Cannon," he said.
Indeed it was serious business. Safavian was up for nomination to a key White House position: administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management of Budget. The political appointee would be acting as the gatekeeper for the government's contracts, in effect controlling some $300 billion in annual business.
Safavian, an Iranian American from Detroit, sailed through the approval process, with even Democrats singing his praises at the hearing. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, seemed more interested in his baby daughter, who was 10 months old at the time and unable to attend the hearing. "I wonder if you would tell your daughter when she is old enough to know that we missed her being here this morning," Levin cooed.
The toughest question of the confirmation hearing was posed by the committee's Republican chairwoman:
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Is there anything you are aware of in your background which might present a conflict of interest with the duties of the office to which you have been nominated?
SAFAVIAN: No, ma'am.
Actually, there was one rather glaring matter -- in addition to the shady ties to fellow lobbyist and Norquist crony Abramoff that now have him in hot water. It came in the form of an item typewritten on official lobbying registration papers filed on Sept. 18, 2000, with the secretary of the U.S. Senate. There, plain as day at the top of page two, it states:
Client Name: Abdurahman Alamoudi
Lobbyist Name: David Safavian
Safavian at the time served as managing partner for Janus-Merritt Strategies LLC, the Washington lobbying firm he started with Norquist and the one that filed the disclosure form that year, as required by law.
Did Safavian once lobby Congress and federal agencies for Alamoudi, a man with far-reaching ties to terrorism and al-Qaida? He insists it was all a mistake and that Alamoudi, a confessed terrorist now behind bars, was "erroneously listed" on the form .
Janus-Merritt, now known as Williams Mullen Strategies, points to a letter it wrote in 2001 to the secretary of the Senate informing her that the firm had incorrectly listed Alamoudi. "The lobbying registration form processed by your office listed Abdurahman Alamoudi incorrectly as the contact," the letter states. (In fact, the original form had listed Alamoudi as the "client," not the contact.) "The form should have read Dr. Jamal al-Barzinji as the contact," the oddly worded letter continues.
That's still cold comfort. While not a confessed terrorist like Alamoudi, Barzinji is an associate of Alamoudi who is under federal investigation for allegedly providing material support to terrorists.
"Barzinji is not only closely associated with PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] but also with Hamas," alleges senior federal agent David Kane in an affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for the Washington-area businesses and homes of Barzinji and his Muslim partners. In addition, Kane alleges he is also directly connected to accused terrorist Sami al-Arian, who among other things, was found with a secret Islamic charter detailing a plan to infiltrate the U.S. government with Islamist spies.
And while Barzinji is not behind bars, he has been in jail on unrelated charges. In November 2000, Fairfax County police arrested him at his Northern Virginia home and charged him with domestic abuse and resisting arrest.
Safavian, 38, doesn't just deny representing Alamoudi himself; he claims no one at the firm represented him. "To my knowledge," he says, "neither I nor Janus-Merritt did any work for Mr. Alamoudi."
But federal records tell a far different story. The firm subsequently filed lobbying reports in February 2001 and July 2001 which also list Alamoudi as a client. The reports show that Janus-Merritt had received an estimated $40,000 from Alamoudi for "foreign policy" and "human rights" lobbying over a 12-month period starting July 1, 2000, and ending June 30, 2001. The period covers the date when the firm registered Alamoudi as a client under Safavian, and a search of Senate records turns up no amendments to these records. During the same period, Alamoudi made widely reported remarks supporting Hamas and Hezbollah at a rally outside the White House. Yet Safavian's firm still took him on as a client.
All told, Alamoudi is listed three times as a client in Janus-Merritt's lobbying disclosure forms, as I first revealed in my book, "INFILTRATION: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington."
Barzinji, on the other hand, does not show up as a regular client. And Safavian himself failed to list him (along with Alamoudi) on his Senate biographical and financial questionnaire, violating its directive to "describe any activity during the past ten years in which you have engaged for the purpose of directly or indirectly influencing the passage, defeat, or modification of any legislation, or affecting the administration and execution of law or public policy."
One client Safavian does admit lobbying for is the Islamic Institute in Washington, which was co-founded by Norquist, who recently wed a Palestinian Muslim activist, and Khaled Saffuri, former deputy to Alamoudi, who provided seed money for the institute.
Records show Safavian registered as the group's chief lobbyist beginning June 1, 1999. They also show that on behalf of his Muslim clients, he lobbied Congress to end the Justice Department's use of undisclosed evidence against suspected Middle Eastern terrorists in deportation proceedings. He pushed that issue in both the House and Senate up until the start of 2001. He also helped his Islamist clients fight terrorist profiling at airports by penning op-eds in Washington newspapers.
"When I go through security, my bags are usually chosen for scanning by the new bomb-sniffing equipment. While I cannot prove it, it is pretty clear that I am routinely racially profiled at the airport," he complained in the Washington Times two weeks before the 2000 election. "People of Arab-American descent or of Muslim faith ... are the ones who are targeted as potential terrorists, merely because they wear different clothes or have a strange accent."
Assisting Safavian in the lobbying effort for the Islamic Institute was one Omar Nashashibi, a Palestinian native who also worked for the Saudi-tied Islamic Society of North America. He is now with Williams Mullen, which took over Janus-Merritt. (Curiously, Nashashibi's biography has been removed from the Williams Mullen Web site even though a spokeswoman confirms he works there as director of government affairs. He also oversees its research department.)
A Troubling Influence
Safavian's ties to the Islamic Institute shed light on the selection process behind his appointment to be the nation's top procurement policy official. The Senate in its biographical questionnaire asked Safavian -- who also lobbied on behalf of Islamabad -- to name the reasons he believes he was selected by the president for the job. And in response, he cited his education, background and experience.
But political connections certainly did not hurt. Safavian not only lobbied for the Islamic Institute, he also sat on its board of directors with founders Norquist and Saffuri, who have arranged meetings between Islamic leaders and top Bush officials, and placed Arabs and Muslims in government jobs -- even though Saffuri worked closely with convicted terrorist Alamoudi and now personally sponsors an orphan of a Palestinian suicide bomber.
The top White House procurement job Safavian landed was actually a promotion. He was already working at the White House as a counselor in the Office of Management and Budget when President Bush tapped him for the senior post. And before that, he worked as chief of staff for the head of the General Services Administration, where he says he mastered the procurement process.
Safavian led an effort at GSA to make it easier for small minority businesses -- including ones owned by Arab immigrants -- to land federal contracts. He distributed easy-to-read packets to small minority firms explaining how to bid on government contracts, including ones involving homeland security.
"We held seminars all over the country and invited small businesses and disadvantaged businesses to participate and learn how to do business with GSA and the Department of Homeland Security," he says. GSA is the landlord for the federal government, holding the keys to more than 1,600 government-owned buildings. As the White House contracting czar, he hoped to "open federal contracting for more disadvantaged businesses." And he planned to start with the Department of Defense: "DoD should look to see if some portions of the work might be suitable for performance by small or disadvantaged businesses."
This no doubt explains the special interest Conyers took in Safavian's nomination. It was an odd scene, after all -- a liberal Democrat crossing the aisle to give a ringing endorsement to a Republican. Conyers is not exactly fond of Bush. Why would he suddenly do his bidding?
He wasn't. He was doing the bidding of his many Arab and Muslim constituents in Detroit, who want to see one of their own in the White House -- and who better than someone dispensing government jobs and contracts. Safavian would be their Trojan horse. Luckily, he did not get much of a chance to play that role.
Busted by Feds
In a positive, if belated, development, the FBI earlier this week arrested Safavian for concealing ties to a shady federal lobbyist under scrutiny. He's accused of lying to ethics officials at the GSA about his connections to Jack Abramoff, showing a pattern of nondisclosure of illicit ties and conflicts of interests first raised in my book.
His ouster from the White House certainly comes as good news. But question remains, how did he ever get promoted there in the first place? Why did the Senate give him a pass regarding his apparent ties to Alamoudi and his failure to disclose his admitted ties to Barzinji? His powerful patron Norquist holds the key to these questions. He has the ear of his old pal Karl Rove, who happens to be the president's closest political adviser. And he has successfully recommended other Islamic Institute alumni for high-ranking jobs.
Now it's incumbent upon federal investigators to conduct closer scrutiny of those other Muslim appointees promoted by Norquist and Saffuri into positions of power inside the federal government. And they can start with none other than the Department of Homeland Security.
Paul Sperry, a Hoover Institution media fellow and Investor's Business Daily veteran, is author of "INFILTRATION: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington" (Nelson Current, 2005). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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