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Ex-Official At Interior Hid His Ties To Abramoff

Griles was a controversial political appointee from the start of his tenure at Interior under then-Secretary Gale A. Norton. Environmentalists and the department's inspector general faulted him for keeping ties to energy and mining companies that were once his lobbying clients.

The guilty plea stems from his testimony on Nov. 2, 2005, before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that "there was no special relationship for Mr. Abramoff in my office. It never did exist." He has now admitted that he had frequent contact with Abramoff through Federici, the founder of a conservative environmental group with close ties to Norton. Federici had served as an official on one of Norton's political campaigns in Colorado.

Abramoff and his lobbying team focused on the Interior Department because its actions affected their most lucrative clients: Indian tribes with casinos. Abramoff directed tribal clients to contribute to Federici's group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.

E-mails released as part of the Senate panel's Abramoff investigation detailed contact Griles had had with Abramoff or Federici.

Griles told the panel then that he had little to do with Indian affairs and never tried to help Abramoff's clients. But a former Interior Department lawyer testified that Griles inserted himself in tribal issues, including one that would determine whether a small Louisiana tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, would be able to build a casino.

The Washington Post outlined in a March 2005 article how Abramoff enlisted the aid of numerous members of Congress and anti-gambling groups to crush the Jena effort because it could draw away casino business from his clients. Just as it appeared the department would grant the Jena's land claim anyway, Griles turned up with a binder full of congressional letters opposing the deal -- a binder prepared by Abramoff -- and pressed it on department officials.

Griles is the second Interior Department employee caught up in the Abramoff scandal. An official of the department's Office of Insular Affairs, which oversees U.S. territories, received two years' probation and a $1,000 fine for failing to report receiving football and concert tickets from Abramoff, who was lobbying for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Griles was criticized in a 2004 report from Devaney, Interior's inspector general. 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.

Devaney's report did not draw conclusions about whether Griles broke laws or ethics rules, in part due to guidance from the Office of Government Ethics, which said that, with two possible exceptions, Griles did not violate ethics rules.

During the investigation, Norton's deputy chief of staff, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, provided ethics advice to Griles and advised Norton on the inspector general's allegations. She also sent a memo to the Office of Government Ethics about the case. Investigators learned after their report was issued that Griles and Wooldridge had been dating since February 2003, people familiar with the investigation said.

Wooldridge eventually became assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. She resigned in January.

Devaney, in testimony last fall before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his Griles probe faced what he called an "assault" from Norton and the Office of Government Ethics. He testified he was astonished at the ethics office's response and that Norton took no disciplinary action against Griles, declaring him "cleared."

He said in a statement yesterday: "I am most proud of the willingness of the many current and former Department employees who told the truth about this top Interior official, sometimes at great risk to their own careers."

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