Ex-Official At Interior Hid His Ties To Abramoff

By Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 24, 2007

The former No. 2 official in the Interior Department yesterday admitted lying to the Senate about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who gained the official's intervention at the agency for his Indian tribal clients.

J. Steven Griles pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a felony for making false statements in testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in November 2005 and in an earlier interview with panel investigators. He is the 10th person -- and the second high-level Bush administration official -- to face criminal charges in the continuing Justice Department investigation into Abramoff's lobbying activities.

Griles, 59, a gregarious former mining lobbyist, drew the wrath of environmentalists and his department's inspector general during a stormy four-year tenure at Interior. Standing before U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, Griles said little beyond admitting guilt, though in a written statement distributed by his lawyer he apologized for his actions.

"I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have," he said in the statement. "When a Senate committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely and it is not my place to decide whether those questions are relevant or too personal."

Griles could receive up to five years in prison for obstructing the Senate investigation, but prosecutors agreed to ask for a sentence of 10 months in exchange for the guilty plea -- five months in jail and five months in a halfway house or in home detention. Huvelle set sentencing for June 26 and said she is not bound by the prosecution's recommendation.

Griles told the Senate panel and its investigators that his relationship with Abramoff was no different from that with any lobbyist. Griles's then-girlfriend, however, had introduced him to the lobbyist and then acted as a go-between. The woman, Italia Federici -- identified as "Person A" in court papers -- ran an advocacy group to which Abramoff and his clients donated $500,000.

"Abramoff occasionally sought and received -- both directly and through Person A -- defendant James Steven Griles' advice and intervention on issues within DOI that directly affected Abramoff and his clients," said the government's charging document. Griles was not accused of accepting anything of value in exchange.

"Today's guilty plea clearly establishes that former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles was ready and willing to serve as Jack Abramoff's 'man inside Interior,' " said Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, whose criminal investigators worked with the Justice Department and the FBI on the case.

Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said this latest conviction in the Abramoff investigation "again demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice to the aggressive investigation and prosecution of public corruption at all levels of government."

The Griles plea comes at a time when the Justice Department is being criticized by congressional Democrats who have alleged that the Bush administration may have fired several U.S. attorneys because they pursued corruption investigations of Republicans or did not swiftly bring charges against Democrats. Several of the more than 40 career law enforcement officials working on the Abramoff task force said there is a vigorous, ongoing investigation of current and former Republican members of Congress.

Among those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the scandal besides Abramoff are former congressman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio); David H. Safavian, former deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget; and several former congressional aides who had become lobbyists, including two who had worked for former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). DeLay resigned from Congress last year and is a figure in the continuing probe, sources familiar with the investigation have said.

The plea deal, which does not require Griles to cooperate in the continuing investigation, gives the government a felony conviction without having to use Abramoff as a trial witness. The former lobbyist could be a star witness if the government brings charges against other political figures unwilling to plead guilty.

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