WASHINGTON - Rep. Chris Cannon is asking a judge for leniency for his former chief of staff, David Safavian, who was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into his ties with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"Has David made mistakes? Of course," Cannon wrote in his letter to the judge requesting probation. "But as you consider his sentence, I hope you will keep some of my personal observations in mind. This is a decent man who made an error in judgment. He has paid a terrible price - and will continue to do so for the rest of his life. Separating him from his wife [who is also in public service] and his 3-year-old daughter will not do anyone any good."
Prosecutors said it would be a "miscarriage of justice" not to impose prison time and have asked U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to sentence Safavian to as many as 37 months in prison. Safavian, the top procurement officer at the White House budget office until just before his arrest late last year, was convicted of four counts of obstruction of justice and false statements for lying to investigators about his relationship with Abramoff. He is to be sentenced Friday.
Safavian's attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, argued that Safavian has been a committed public servant and family man, that his career has been ruined by his arrest and conviction, and asked the judge to impose probation or home confinement.
"The government's caricature cannot detract from the fact that, as acquaintances, supervisors, and colleagues attest, Mr. Safavian's history and character reflects dedication to his family, his community and country," Van Gelder said.
Cannon said he wrote the letter because his friend needed help, and he is confident the judge will do the right thing. "Dave is actually a very interesting guy, worth writing about," Cannon said in an interview.
Cannon's opponent in the 3rd District, Christian Burridge, said Cannon's letter on Safavian's behalf shows how the two candidates differ.
"It shows just where his allegiances lie - with the lobbyists in Washington and not the constituents of the 3rd district," Burridge said. "Utahns expect more and deserve better. We have bright enough people in Utah to run our office. We don't need to hire gambling lobbyists to represent Utah."
Letters vouching for Safavian's character also were written by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; by Clay Johnson, deputy director at the White House budget office; and by a police officer at the Maryland precinct where Safavian did volunteer work.
Safavian was convicted of misleading ethics officials, Senate investigators and the Government Service Administration inspector general about a lavish golf trip he and others took to Scotland with Abramoff in 2002, when Safavian was chief of staff at the GSA, which manages federal property.
E-mails used as evidence during the trial show that Abramoff provided numerous gifts and perks to Safavian, who provided Abramoff information about two business deals the lobbyist was trying to make through the GSA.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to five felony counts of fraud and corruption and has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison. He has been cooperating in the ongoing Justice Department investigation but is expected to report to prison in Maryland next month.
Safavian got his start in lobbying alongside Abramoff before becoming a partner in Janus-Merritt Strategies. He took a leave of absence to become Cannon's chief of staff in 2001, leaving open the door to return to his firm.
During Safavian's tenure with Cannon, the congressman took positions that helped several of Safavian's former clients, including the online gaming industry, telecommunications firms, a media giant and an American Indian tribe.
Cannon's spokesman has said the two simply agreed on those issues.
* Tribune reporter GLEN WARCHOL contributed to this article.