By MATT APUZZO
The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 7:24 PM
WASHINGTON -- A federal judge chastised the Interior Department's former No. 2 official and doubled his proposed prison term to 10 months Tuesday for lying to senators in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and making excuses about it in court.
J. Steven Griles was the department's deputy secretary and is the highest administration official sentenced in the probe. He pleaded guilty to obstructing a congressional investigation, but on Tuesday his lawyers tried to deflect blame for his faulty testimony.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle was not pleased.
"Even now you continue to minimize and try to excuse your conduct," she told Griles before doubling the five-month prison term he and prosecutors had agreed on.
Griles admitted to lying to Senate investigators about his relationship with Abramoff, the central figure in a corruption investigation that has led to convictions of a former congressman, legislative aides, lobbyists and officials in the Bush administration.
Second in rank only to then-Secretary Gale Norton, Griles effectively was Interior's chief operating officer between 2001 and 2005 and its top representative on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
Under his plea deal with prosecutors, the Justice Department recommended he serve five months in prison and five months in a halfway house or under house arrest.
Huvelle seemed frustrated, however, as Griles and his attorneys appeared to dodge questions about what exactly Griles lied about and why. Attorney Barry M. Hartman said the Justice Department was trying to link Griles to "the stench of Jack Abramoff" and said that, if lawmakers had only provided Griles with documents showing the extent of his relationship with Abramoff, his testimony would have been accurate.
"Do you really believe that?" Huvelle shot back. "You think it's the Senate's fault?"
With family and supporters holding hands in the front row of a packed courtroom, Griles choked up and wept as he asked for leniency. He apologized for not disclosing that his girlfriend, Italia Federici, had introduced him to Abramoff, giving the lobbyist greater credibility.
"It was not my place to decide what was relevant and what was inappropriate," Griles said.
Huvelle interjected and pointedly told Griles that the Senate didn't care about how he met Abramoff. The lie wasn't about an introduction, she said. The lie was about repeated contact with Abramoff, about contributions the lobbyist made to Federici's nonprofit group and about how much access Griles gave him, Huvelle said.
"You consistently mischaracterized the nature and extent of your dealings with Mr. Abramoff," Huvelle said.
Prosecutor Armando Bonilla described Griles as Abramoff's "guy at the Interior." The agency was critical for Abramoff, whose clients included Indian tribes.
When one of Abramoff's clients was denied $1.3 million in a land settlement, Abramoff appealed to Griles. Abramoff also encouraged Griles to keep President Bush from endorsing anyone in the Northern Mariana Islands governor's race. The island commonwealth was an Abramoff client.
Bonilla ran down the list of contacts between the two men and said prosecutors had planned to indict Griles on multiple felony counts. Huvelle questioned why the Justice Department had accepted the deal, one which she later told Griles was "very favorable."
Griles was fined $30,000 and was sentenced to three years probation following his release from prison. The judge did not immediately set a date for him to report to prison. That will be set by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which also will assign him to a prison. Griles asked Huvelle to recommend he be assigned to a prison camp in Petersburg, Va., and she agreed.
Griles is not cooperating in the investigation. Federici pleaded guilty this month tax evasion and obstruction and is helping investigators.
Awaiting sentencing in the bribery scandal, Abramoff already is serving six years in prison for a bogus Florida casino deal.