How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?

A TIME inquiry finds that at top positions in some vital government agencies, the Bush Administration is putting connections before experience

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His political clout, federal procurement experts say privately, came from his late-1990s lobbying partnership with Grover Norquist, now head of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of the Bush Administration. Norquist is an antitax advocate who once famously declared that his goal was to shrink the Federal Government so he could "drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." As the U.S. procurement czar, Safavian was pushing in that direction by seeking to shift government work to private contractors, contending it was cheaper. Federal procurement insiders say his relationship with Norquist gave Safavian the edge in snaring the procurement post. But Norquist has "no memory" of urging the Administration to put Safavian in the post, says an associate speaking on Norquist's behalf. A White House official said Norquist "didn't influence the decision." Clay Johnson, who was designated by the White House to answer all of TIME's questions about administration staffing issues and who oversaw the procurement post, says Safavian was "by far the most qualified person" for the job. Perhaps it also didn't hurt that Safavian's wife Jennifer works as a lawyer for the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees federal contracting.

In addition, Safavian had worked at a law firm in the mid-'90s with Jack Abramoff, one of the capital's highest-paid lobbyists, a top G.O.P. fund raiser and a close friend of House majority leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff was indicted last month on unrelated fraud and conspiracy charges. In 2002, Abramoff invited Safavian on a weeklong golf outing to Scotland's famed St. Andrews course (as Abramoff had done with DeLay in 2000). Seven months after the trip, an anonymous call to a government hotline said lobbyists had picked up the tab for the jaunt. That wasn't true; Safavian paid $3,100 for the trip. But the government alleges that he lied when he repeatedly told investigators that Abramoff had no business dealings with the General Services Administration, where Safavian worked at the time. Prosecutors alleged last week, however, that Safavian worked closely with Abramoff--identified only as "Lobbyist A" in the criminal complaint against Safavian--to give Abramoff an inside track in his efforts to acquire control of two pieces of federal property in the Washington area. Safavian, who is free without bail, declined to be interviewed for this story. His attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said the government is trying to pressure her client to help in its probe of Abramoff. "This is a creative use of the criminal code to secure his cooperation," she said.

Three days after the Sept. 12 resignation of FEMA's Michael Brown, Julie Myers, the Bush Administration's nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The session did not go well. "I think we ought to have a meeting with [Homeland Security Secretary] Mike Chertoff," Ohio Republican George Voinovich told Myers. "I'd really like to have him spend some time with us, telling us personally why he thinks you're qualified for the job. Because based on the résumé, I don't think you are."

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