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.
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."