E-Mails Show Ex-Interior Official's Links to Lobbyist

Former deputy interior secretary J. Steven Griles denied relationship.
Former deputy interior secretary J. Steven Griles denied relationship. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 5, 2005

The former deputy secretary of the Interior Department had numerous meetings, telephone calls and other contacts with Jack Abramoff concerning the lobbyist's tribal clients, e-mails released by congressional investigators show.

J. Steven Griles, who held the No. 2 job at Interior from 2001 to 2004, testified Wednesday before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that he never tried to intercede on behalf of Abramoff's clients and that he had no special relationship with him. He said he had rejected a job offer from Abramoff in 2003.

The e-mails suggest a much closer relationship than Griles acknowledged in his testimony. They reflect more than a half-dozen contacts Griles had with Abramoff or with a woman working as the lobbyist's go-between. The contacts concerned gambling-related issues affecting four tribal clients who were paying Abramoff tens of millions of dollars to represent them.

According to the e-mails, Griles advised Abramoff how to get members of Congress to pressure the department and provided him information about Interior decision-making. In one instance, Abramoff wrote to his lobbying colleagues that Griles would be providing a draft of an Interior letter to Congress to give them "a head start."

The Justice Department is investigating Abramoff's practices, focusing on tribal clients that paid him and a public relations associate $82 million between 2001 and 2003. Investigators are examining whether executive branch officials or members of Congress and their staffs did favors for the lobbyist for campaign contributions, jobs or trips.

The e-mails made public this week show that Abramoff's dealings with Griles began at a March 1, 2001, social event. Before Griles took office, Abramoff offered him "strategic advice" on two Interior bureaus -- Insular Affairs and Indian Affairs -- whose decisions could affect his clients.

In an e-mail sent in September 2002, Abramoff reported to his lobbying team that he had a "great dinner with Griles," during which they discussed tribes seeking casinos that would compete with those of Abramoff's tribal clients. Abramoff told his team that Griles "is very excited" about a proposed "legislative fix" that would hamper efforts by the Jena Band of Choctaws to get land for a casino in Louisiana.

E-mails show Abramoff tried to influence Griles through Italia Federici, head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group co-founded by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. Griles had a personal relationship with Federici. Abramoff's tribal clients donated at least $250,000 to Federici's group. When Louisiana took action that moved the Jena plan along, Abramoff messaged Federici: "Can you make sure Steve knows about this and puts the kibosh on it? Thanks."

But Abramoff soon told colleagues that Griles was "upset" at him for mobilizing Ralph Reed and Christian groups to put grass-roots pressure on Norton to kill the Jena's plan. "I got a call from Griles basically accusing Ralph and me of having our finger prints on an anti-Norton effort. I denied it, of course, but it is clear that I have taken a hit here," he wrote to a colleague.

Abramoff's spokesman declined to comment, citing the investigation.

E-mails from March 2003 show Griles's involvement in Abramoff's efforts to get Interior money for a school for the wealthy Saginaw Chippewa tribe, even though Congress had barred any such grants for new construction.

Griles "just called me," Abramoff wrote. "He said we have to get the Members of the House to respond to their letter that this should be funded and then it will be done. . . . Griles will get me the letter once it is drafted so we have a head start."

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