Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton's former legal counselor yesterday accused J. Steven Griles, the department's recently departed second in command, of improperly trying to meddle in decisions affecting tribal clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Former legal counselor Michael G. Rossetti, seated beside Griles before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he repeatedly rebuffed Griles's efforts and, at one point, confronted him in front of other officials. He accused Griles of attempting to do Abramoff's bidding on an issue affecting the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, an Abramoff gambling client.
"I wanted Mr. Griles to know I had my eye on him because I was worried about it -- whether founded or not, I was worried about it," Rossetti said. He said he demanded to know from Griles "whose water was he carrying," Rossetti testified.
Griles, flushed and agitated, denied aiding Abramoff. "I don't recall intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff, ever," he said. "There was no special relationship with Abramoff in my office."
The face-off between two former senior Bush administration officials was the latest twist in the unfolding story of Abramoff's efforts to influence Congress and executive branch agencies. A Justice Department public corruption task force is investigating the former GOP lobbying powerhouse; yesterday's hearing was the fourth the committee has held to look into the $82 million Abramoff and associates received from tribal clients over three years.
The panel's chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), called the saga "a complex and tangled web . . . a story alarming in its depth and breadth of potential wrongdoing. It is breathtaking in its reach."
One witness -- Italia Federici, depicted in e-mails as a go-between from Abramoff to Griles -- refused to appear, citing prior family considerations. U.S. marshals have been looking for her since last week to serve her a subpoena, and McCain said he would require her to come before the committee on her own.
McCain questioned Griles about a discussion he had with Abramoff about joining his lobbying firm in September 2003, two months before Griles's confrontation with Rossetti. McCain cited an e-mail obtained by the committee in which Abramoff told his lobbying colleagues that he had met with Griles and expected him to join their team.
"This cannot be shared with anyone not on this distribution list," Abramoff wrote. "I met with him tonight. He is ready to leave Interior and will most likely be coming to join us. He had a nice sized practice before he joined Interior, and expects to get that and more rather soon. I expect he will be with us in 90-120 days. This will restrict what he can do for us in the meantime," wrote Abramoff, but said Griles "gave me some suggestions" on several tribal related issues.
Griles told the panel he had been offered a job but immediately declined it and told Interior Department ethics officials about the overture.
Interior Department spokesman Daniel J. DuBray said that Griles did confer with an ethics officer over the job offer. He said he could not comment further on yesterday's hearing, citing the investigations into "all aspects of Mr. Abramoff's contacts with the department -- both direct contacts and those which may have been conducted by surrogates."
Much of yesterday's hearing centered on Griles's dealings with Federici, who introduced Griles and Abramoff to each other around the time of President Bush's election. Federici, a former Norton campaign aide in the secretary's native Colorado, is president of a conservative environmental group Norton founded with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.
Abramoff had his tribal clients send at least $250,000 to the group -- Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy -- between 2001 and 2003.
"The question is why," McCain said. He said e-mails show that Abramoff and his team "believed that Ms. Federici had 'juice' at the Department of Interior and deemed her 'critical' to his tribal lobbying practice." In numerous e-mails, Federici told Abramoff she had or would raise the lobbyists' concerns with Griles.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that Federici and Griles had a personal relationship that is an element in the investigation into Abramoff's influence at the department.
"I recall a few conversations where she asked me to call Abramoff," said Griles yesterday, adding that he remembered calling Abramoff on one occasion.
Griles said the only time he remembered Abramoff being in his office was for a "photo op" with the former chief of the Coushatta tribe on Feb. 5, 2002. That meeting occurred as Abramoff and the Coushattas were in the midst of a furious effort to prevent another Louisiana tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, from winning concessions at the Interior Department that would pave the way for them to open a casino.
Rossetti said Griles repeatedly sought to intervene in the department's two-year consideration of the Jena matter. "He had a very keen interest," Rossetti testified, and made "constant requests to be involved in meetings." Rossetti said he tried to block the efforts because he did not want Norton to be vulnerable to criticism that the normal decision-making process had not been followed.
Griles denied he had ever sought to weigh in on tribal issues during his tenure at the department, which lasted from 2001 until last year.
But Rossetti said that in late 2003, with Norton about to make a decision on the Jena, Griles presented him with a binder full of legal arguments and congressional letters arguing against the Jena bid. Rossetti demanded to know where it had come from, and after much discussion, he testified, Griles acknowledged it had come to him "by way of Mr. Abramoff."
"Mr. Rossetti has a different memory than I have on that issue," Griles said. He said he showed the binder to Rossetti and asked him to share it with Norton, recalling that he asked, "Please make sure she knows all sides of this issue."
"I do not know and did not know where it came from," Griles said. He said his secretary was called down to pick it up at the department's front desk, and once it was placed in his office, he thought he should give it to Rossetti because it was now an official Interior Department document.
In a statement yesterday, Andrew Blum, spokesman for Abramoff, said the lobbyist was in the "impossible position" of not being able to give his side of the story because of the ongoing investigations.