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."
The Washington Post has reported that Abramoff's team got the $3 million grant for the tribe later that year after Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) pressured the Bureau of Indian Affairs to release the funds. Burns received $137,000 in contributions from Abramoff lobbyists and their tribal clients.
Abramoff built his business with the tribes by touting ties to leaders such as former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Among e-mails released this week are several from 2002 in which Abramoff exhorted members of his lobbying team to raise money from their clients for Abramoff's personal charity, the Capital Athletic Foundation. Senate investigators have accused Abramoff of misusing the charity by funding activities such as an Israeli sniper school on the West Bank.
Abramoff wrote to lobbyist Tony C. Rudy, a former DeLay staffer, that DeLay "wants us to raise some bucks" for the foundation.
Richard Cullen, a lawyer for DeLay, said that he had not seen the e-mails, but that DeLay "has no recollection about this at all."
Rudy asked another lobbyist to get the Saginaw Chippewa tribe to donate $25,000, saying, "Jack wants this." Lobbyist Todd A. Boulanger queried: "What is it? I've never heard of it." Rudy replied: "It is something our friends are raising money for."
Boulanger replied: "I'm sensing shadiness. I'll stop asking." Said Rudy: "Your senses are good. If you have to say leadership is asking, please do. I already have."
Rudy and Abramoff parted ways within weeks of this exchange, with Rudy joining another firm.
In August 2002, Abramoff e-mailed the tribe again, seeking the $25,000 for "the DeLay thing." Foundation ledgers show it was not DeLay but another member of Congress who benefited from the charity's spending that summer. The foundation spent $166,634 on expenses related to a golf trip to Scotland that Abramoff organized for Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).