J. Steven Griles, the former timber and energy lobbyist who managed the country's vast mineral and land holdings as the Interior Department's No. 2 official, resigned yesterday and said he would return to the private sector.
Griles, a vocal advocate for drilling and logging on public lands as Interior's deputy secretary, won praise from industry but came under intense scrutiny for maintaining close ties to his former lobbying firm and its clients. An 18-month investigation by the department's inspector general found that he had dealings with energy and mining industry clients of National Environmental Strategies Inc. even as he continued to receive payments from his former firm. The report did not accuse Griles of violating any laws or federal ethics rules.
J. Steven Griles joined Interior in July 2001.
In an interview yesterday, Griles defended his record, saying those who "came after me with a political agenda opposed this president at the very beginning."
"In 22 years of service, I have assured that the environment is healthier, the air is clearer, the water is safer and the land is being reclaimed," said Griles, 56, adding that he planned to go someplace warm and work on his golf game before choosing his next job. "At the same time, there is a tremendous need for energy in this county."
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who defended her deputy when he came under fire, wrote to Griles upon learning of his resignation, "Yours is the letter I hoped would never come." She added that through their joint efforts, "we have improved the health of public land forests and rangelands and enhanced wildlife refuges and our national parks."
Environmentalists hailed Griles's departure, saying he had blocked wilderness protections and promoted energy interests since joining Norton's side in July 2001. Friends of the Earth program director David Hirsch, whose group obtained logs of his meetings with former clients and administration officials on regulatory issues that mattered to several of his old clients, mocked the idea that Griles is returning to private life.
"That's the whole problem: He never left private life. He spent four years working for his former clients at the Department of Interior," Hirsch said. "It didn't seem to matter how many problems came out, he just kept going. He's the Energizer Bunny of conflict of interest."
Under an arrangement approved by the Office of Government Ethics and the Senate, Griles was allowed to receive payments totaling more than $1 million from 2001 to 2005 as part of a buyout by the firm while collecting his $150,000 annual federal salary, and he agreed to recuse himself from matters affecting his former firm's clients. Earthjustice legislative counsel Joan Mulhern said she suspected Griles is leaving "now that he can no longer double-dip at the taxpayers' expense."
Griles, however, had backers on Capitol Hill and in the industries he regulated. "U.S. energy policy will miss his rare expertise in both the private sector and in government," said National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said in an interview yesterday that Griles would be remembered for being "an extraordinarily competent administrator. He's kept the trains running at the Interior Department, and he served his president and his country well."
For his part, Griles said he was proudest that he had started a dialogue between conservation groups and energy executives that had prompted the Bureau of Land Management to adopt more environmentally sensitive management practices and had inspired Interior officials to put part of Montana's Western Front off-limits to oil and gas development.
"I am more than happy to say I was part of making that happen," he said.