By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 15, 2007
A senior Justice Department official who recently resigned her post bought a nearly $1 million vacation home with a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips months before approving consent decrees that would give the oil company more time to pay millions of dollars in fines and meet pollution-cleanup rules at some of its refineries.
Sue Ellen Wooldridge, former assistant attorney general in charge of environment and natural resources, bought a $980,000 home on Kiawah Island, S.C., last March with ConocoPhillips lobbyist Don R. Duncan. A third owner of the house is J. Steven Griles, a former deputy interior secretary, who has been informed he is a target in the federal investigation of Jack Abramoff's lobbying activities.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said yesterday that Wooldridge sought and received approval from a career ethics official in her office before buying the vacation property. Wooldridge's lawyer and officials at ConocoPhillips said that Duncan had no role in negotiating the consent decrees and never lobbied Wooldridge.
Wooldridge, who earlier served in senior positions at the Interior Department, lives with Griles in Virginia. Her investment with Griles and the oil lobbyist took place on March 13, 2006, property records show, during a wide-ranging Justice Department criminal investigation that involves Griles and lobbyists at Interior. The joint purchase and Wooldridge's role in the consent decrees were reported yesterday by the Associated Press.
Stephen Grafman, an attorney for Wooldridge, said his client owns a 25 percent share of the vacation property. "She used her own money," Grafman said. He said that Wooldridge was called in November before a grand jury investigating Abramoff and Griles but that she is not under investigation.
In November 2006, ConocoPhillips reached proposed consent decrees with the federal government and four states that would modify an agreement the company had reached with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to settle charges it was violating the Clean Air Act. The proposed changes, which must be approved by a federal judge overseeing the case, would give the company more time to install equipment and processes that would cost an estimated $525 million to cut emissions at some refineries.
Wooldridge, as head of the Justice Department's environmental division, signed the agreements on behalf of the federal government.
In lobbying disclosure forms filed last year, Duncan -- ConocoPhillips's vice president for federal and international affairs -- said he lobbied Congress on revisions to the Clean Air Act. He did not report lobbying the Justice Department or other federal agencies.
Duncan "was not involved at all" in the consent decrees, said ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Kristi Desjarlaif, who said the negotiations were handled by company lawyers. Nevertheless, Duncan sought approval from the company's legal division last year when he sought to invest with Griles and Wooldridge. "Our legal division said she needed to get clearance from DOJ ethics officials," said Desjarlaif, something she said Wooldridge was already pursuing.
Wooldridge submitted her resignation from Justice last month, three days after Griles's lawyer was informed by the department's criminal division that Griles faces potential criminal charges in connection with his dealings with Abramoff. A Justice spokeswoman has said that Wooldridge returned to the private sector and that her departure was voluntary.
Wooldridge and Griles "do own a small condo together," said Griles's attorney, Barry M. Hartman. Of the South Carolina property, he said: "This is a shared investment among people who have been close personal friends for years. What exactly is wrong with three close personal friends sharing a vacation/rental home?"
Griles, who resigned his deputy's job in 2005 and now is a mining and energy lobbyist, was a lightning rod for criticism during his four years at Interior. Sources close to the federal probe have said he is being investigated for making possibly false statements about a job offer from Abramoff, who lobbied Interior heavily on behalf of Indian tribal clients with casinos.
Griles was harshly criticized in a 2004 report from Interior's inspector general for maintaining ties to lobbying clients who had business before the department. Inspector General Earl E. Devaney found that Griles had used his official position in dealings with clients of his former firm even as he continued to receive payments from the firm amounting to more than $1 million. His report did not draw conclusions about whether Griles broke any law or ethics rules. The Office of Government Ethics, in reviewing the findings, said that, with two possible exceptions, Griles did not violate ethics rules.
Wooldridge, who was deputy chief of staff to the interior secretary and later became solicitor at Interior, provided ethics advice to Griles and advised then-Secretary Gale A. Norton on how she should handle the inspector general's allegations. She did not tell the inspector general of her personal relationship with Griles, according to sources familiar with the investigation. About August 2002, according to the inspector general's report, Wooldridge replaced Griles's special assistant as his ethics screener, a role in which she helped him determine when he should recuse himself from matters that posed a conflict of interest. After Griles's departure from Interior, Wooldridge disclosed to investigators in the Abramoff probe that she and Griles began dating in February 2003, sources familiar with the probe said.
Wooldridge and Griles both filed amended financial disclosure reports late last year that reported thousands of dollars in gifts and trips they gave one another in 2003. During that time and afterward, Wooldridge was contacting investigators, answering questions and writing a memorandum defending Griles's activities as deputy at Interior.
The memo, dated Feb. 8, 2004, concerned Griles involvement with a bid by some former clients to gain concessions to extract coal-bed methane in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana. Griles had contacted EPA officials to urge that a dispute over an environmental study not delay the project.
In the memo, Wooldridge argued to the inspector general and to the Office of Government Ethics that Griles's actions were not a violation because they were not a "particular matter involving specific parties."
Norton took no action against Griles at the time of the inspector general's report and declared that he had been "cleared" of any wrongdoing.
Norton's handling of the matter angered members of Congress, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who had initiated one aspect of the investigation. Lieberman said the report had painted a "disturbing picture of repeated questionable conduct."
Research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.