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Abramoff, Prison and a Crazy Little Thing Called Love

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Love is a many-splendored thing -- unless you're under investigation by the feds. Then it can be quite a nuisance.

Had J. Steven Griles not been busy with so many lady friends while serving as the No. 2 official in the Interior Department, he probably wouldn't have scored a date yesterday with another woman: Judge Ellen Huvelle of U.S. District Court, who sentenced Griles to 10 months in prison for obstructing an investigation into the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Griles asked Abramoff for favors for the women in his life, prosecutors said, and in exchange helped Abramoff's clients with their government business. One of Griles's girlfriends, Italia Federici, got $500,000 for her nonprofit from Abramoff's Indian tribes.

"I concealed the nature and extent of my true relationship with Italia Federici," Griles confessed to the judge yesterday in a statement interrupted by stifled sobs. Choking out the words, a burly, red-faced Griles told Huvelle that "this has been the most difficult time in my life. My guilty plea has brought me great shame and embarrassment."

And the shame wasn't about to end. "Even now, you continue to minimize and try to excuse your conduct," the judge told him, giving him twice as much time behind bars as prosecutors had recommended. "You went far beyond keeping your relationship with Ms. Federici a secret."

Some romantics shower their women with wine and roses. Griles did better than that. Prosecutors said he asked Abramoff to fund a charity proposed by one woman he was dating. They said he asked Abramoff to get his law firm to hire two other women he was dating. And then there was all that Abramoff tribal money that went to Federici. Two decades Griles's junior, she was the one who introduced the two men and eventually helped with the Abramoff probe after pleading guilty to tax and perjury charges.

When the Interior Department's inspector general looked into his dealings with lobbyists, Griles, a former mining lobbyist, sought the counsel of Sue Ellen Wooldridge, another woman in the department. Wooldridge, who later joined the Justice Department, became Griles's third wife in March, three days after his guilty plea.

Griles, 59, wept as he embraced Wooldridge after his sentencing yesterday. He and his family members, some also in tears and hugging each other, departed the courtroom slowly. It was a severe but not surprising end to the sentencing hearing for Griles, the highest-ranking Bush administration official to succumb to the Abramoff scandal.

"J. Steven Griles deserves to go to jail," prosecutor Armando Bonilla told the judge.

He recalled how Griles "abused his position of trust" and then, with "righteous indignation," misled Senate investigators. Bonilla referred to the "triangle" -- business, not love -- between Federici, Abramoff and Griles. He went through Griles's various sins, from the serious (five months of employment negotiations with Abramoff) to the silly (intervening to protect Abramoff's valet parking at his restaurant, Signatures, during the filming of the Nicolas Cage film "National Treasure").

Griles's lawyer, Barry Hartman, tried to detach his client from the fallen lobbyist. "The stench of Jack Abramoff is everywhere," he said. "Mr. Griles suffers from that."

But Hartman had trouble making headway with the judge. When he asked permission for a tribal representative to speak in support of Griles, she protested, reminding him that "you've given me almost 100 letters." She seemed skeptical when Hartman tried to minimize the ties between Abramoff, Federici and Griles. "This person he's having an at-times-romantic relationship with, he did not know who was paying her?" Huvelle asked.

When another lawyer for Griles, Brian Stolarz, was arguing for a lenient sentence, Huvelle accidentally dropped a heavy binder on the floor with a thud. "Sorry, Your Honor. Large pleadings," Stolarz joked.

Large, but not enough to spare Griles. As the former official made his emotional statement, Huvelle interrupted to challenge his assertion that he had no special relationship with Abramoff. "Your relationship with Mr. Abramoff was different only because you met him through Ms. Federici -- is that your position?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Griles answered in his Southern accent.

Huvelle didn't accept that. "Sir, you held a position of trust," she told Griles. "I will hold you to a higher standard." She then pronounced those six words that invariably precede a tough sentence: "You are not above the law."

Griles walked away slowly and conferred quietly with his lawyer, shaking his head.

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