Gonzales Asked About Prosecutor Deal

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By JOHN HEILPRIN
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 15, 2007; 9:01 PM

WASHINGTON -- The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to explain how the Justice Department's former top environmental prosecutor could sign consent decrees with the third-largest U.S. oil company after buying a $980,000 vacation home with its top lobbyist.

An Associated Press report a day earlier disclosing the transactions "suggests potential unethical, if not illegal, conduct by a senior Justice Department official and, even more disturbing, apparent complicity in such behavior by the department," the committee's chairman, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said in a letter to Gonzales.

Conyers also asked Gonzales when he and other department officials learned of then-Assistant Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge's "close relationship with a target of a department public corruption investigation and what action, if any, was taken as a result?"

A third buyer of the gated community home at Kiawah Island, S.C., was former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, who shares a condominium in northern Virginia with Wooldridge and was told last month he faces possible criminal charges of lying to Congress and fraud in the Jack Abramoff bribery and influence-peddling scandal.

The Justice Department says ethics officials signed off on Wooldridge's purchase of the beach getaway with Griles, now an oil and gas lobbyist, and ConocoPhillips Vice President Donald R. Duncan, before the closing last April. The deed lists Duncan as half owner in the property, with Wooldridge and Griles each owning 25 percent.

Nine months later, the Justice Department sent two proposed consent decrees signed by Wooldridge to a federal judge in Houston for approval. One, sent Jan. 11, would let the company delay the required installation of some of the $525 million in pollution controls at nine refineries; the other dealt with a Superfund toxic waste cleanup. Wooldridge resigned as assistant attorney general effective Jan. 19. ConocoPhillips said Duncan had no involvement in negotiating the consent agreements.

Conyers' letter also was signed by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, as an expression of broader support for the inquiries within the House. Another House panel, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., launched an inquiry a day earlier.

The Justice Department said it would have no comment Thursday.

Wooldridge two months ago amended her financial disclosure report for 2005 to include more than $10,000 in travel, jewelry, a watch and golf clubs she received from Griles between December 2003 and December 2005. Griles began dating Wooldridge in February 2003, when she was deputy staff chief and counselor to then Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Griles was the department's No. 2 official from July 2001 to January 2005. During that tenure he was almost constantly scrutinized by the department's internal watchdog over dealings with ex-clients and continuing payments from the sale of his old lobbying firm.

Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney concluded in a 2004 that Griles' actions exposed a "wholesale failure of the ethics program" at the agency. They were, Devaney said, "a train wreck waiting to happen."

While dating Griles, Wooldridge was officially counseling him on ethics matters and providing advice to Norton on how to respond to Devaney's report on him. Wooldridge did not tell Devaney about her relationship with Griles.

In June 2004, Bush appointed Wooldridge as Interior's top lawyer. Sometime after she became Interior solicitor, Wooldridge told the department's ethics office she and Griles had begun dating, an Interior spokesman said. Devaney did not learn of Griles' and Wooldridge's romantic relationship until February 2005.

Bush later appointed Wooldridge to head the Justice Department's environment division, representing virtually every federal agency, and she began working there in November 2005.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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