Cozy at the Beach

Saturday, February 17, 2007

IT'S THE KIND of story that seems to confirm everything people believe is sleazy about the way Washington works. Last March, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, then the head of the Justice Department's environmental division, bought a $1 million vacation home with Don R. Duncan, the top lobbyist for oil company ConocoPhillips. Nine months later, Ms. Wooldridge signed off on a settlement agreement that let ConocoPhillips delay the installation of pollution-control equipment and the payment of fines.

Just to make matters cozier, the third owner of the beach house is J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 official at the Interior Department who's now the target of a Justice Department criminal investigation into his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Oh, and Ms. Wooldridge, who lives with Mr. Griles, once worked with him at Interior, where she gave Mr. Griles ethics advice and defended his actions during an inspector general investigation.

Justice officials and Ms. Wooldridge's lawyer say she checked with a department ethics lawyer and got the go-ahead to buy the home. "There was no need to recuse herself from ConocoPhillips since she was advised by the appropriate ethics officials that there was not a conflict," her lawyer, Stephen Grafman, told the Associated Press. We'd like to understand more about the basis for that advice; Mr. Grafman says he has a written ethics opinion from Justice but declined to release it, saying that should be left to the department. Given Mr. Duncan's key position as the head of the company's Washington office, and Ms. Wooldridge's similarly key role as assistant attorney general, the assertion that Duncan didn't lobby Wooldridge doesn't give much comfort. The entanglements -- an investment with a senior employee of a company whose interests she's involved with overseeing -- look just terrible. Recusal should have been a no-brainer.

Ms. Wooldridge has left the department, but Justice, responding to inquiries from Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), said yesterday that its Office of Professional Responsibility was looking into the matter. In the meantime, here's an ethics tip: If you have to ask the ethics folks for advice about whether you can do something, you probably shouldn't do it.

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