By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
A federal judge rejected the tearful pleas of the former second-ranking official in the Interior Department yesterday and sentenced him to 10 months in prison for a felony conviction of obstructing a Senate investigation into corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"You are not above the law," U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle told former deputy interior secretary J. Steven Griles as he asked for forgiveness.
Griles pleaded guilty in March to lying to the Senate about his relationship with Abramoff. In the plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a sentence of five months of house arrest and five months in prison.
But Huvelle imposed a sterner penalty of 10 months in prison and a $30,000 fine. She said she wanted to send a message to deter wrongdoing by high-ranking government officials. Defense attorneys had asked for three months of home detention, community service and a "reasonable fine."
Griles, 59, the highest-ranking federal official convicted in the Abramoff scandal, apologized for his actions and cited 24 years of public service. "This has been the most difficult time," Griles said, pausing to break down in tears, "in my life. My guilty plea has brought me great shame and embarrassment. I have lost my business, my income and, most importantly, my reputation."
The judge said that years of public service were no cause for leniency. "You held a position of trust as number two in the Department of Interior, and I will hold you to a higher standard," Huvelle told Griles. "I find that, even now, you continue to minimize and try to excuse your conduct and the nature of your misstatements."
After the judge left the packed courtroom, Griles sought comfort from his wife, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, a former Interior Department solicitor and former assistant attorney general.
Griles, who is not cooperating with the federal investigation, was introduced to the now-convicted lobbyist by a girlfriend who ran an advocacy group co-founded by former interior secretary Gale Norton and financed by Abramoff's Indian tribal clients.
The government contended that Abramoff thought that if he and his tribal clients contributed money to the group, then he would gain special access to Griles through the girlfriend, Italia Federici.
Federici pleaded guilty this month to tax and perjury charges and agreed to cooperate with the government. She admitted to acting as a go-between, shuttling information and lobbying requests from Abramoff to Griles. The government alleged that Abramoff raised thousands of dollars for Federici's group -- the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) -- just before Griles became deputy secretary.
The government said that Griles had asked for $100,000 for CREA and Abramoff solicited the funds from his tribal clients. Griles said that while he helped raise money earlier, he was unaware of those 2001 contributions to CREA on eve of his joining the Interior Department. He said he learned of them later when Federici stopped acting as a conduit between the lobbyist and Griles.
With her brow furrowed, Huvelle expressed disbelief several times that Griles did not know that Abramoff was funding CREA at a time he was romantically involved with Federici.
Griles stood in the front of the courtroom and said Abramoff was no different from any lobbyist who came before him as the top deputy to then-Secretary Norton. "I had more contact with many, many lobbyists -- more than Jack Abramoff," Griles said.
Barry M. Hartman, attorney for Griles, told the court that the actions Griles took involved "normal, appropriate contacts with lobbyists," and that his only offense was not being truthful to the Senate about his relationship with Federici. Griles's attorneys disputed as "inaccurate inferences" government assertions that Griles pushed Abramoff's lobbying requests as he urged the lobbyist to hire his friends and bankroll a girlfriend's plan for a charity.
But Huvelle dismissed the defense attorneys' arguments. She also questioned government lawyers at one point about whether they accepted too lenient a plea from Griles. "The agreement you have with the government is a very favorable one," Huvelle told Griles.