Interior Official Admits Obstructing Justice in Abramoff Case

WASHINGTON, DC, March 23, 2007 (ENS) Former Deputy Interior Secretary James Steven Griles pleaded guilty today in federal court to one count of obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff corruption investigation. Griles, a former lobbyist for mining and oil industries, is the highest ranking Bush administration official caught in the Washington lobbying scandal.

Griles pleaded guilty to "lying to the Senate about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff ...in testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in November 2005 and in an earlier interview with panel investigators."

The Senate committee was investigating, among other things, the level of access Abramoff had to Griles while he was serving as DOI deputy secretary.

Griles now admits he obstructed the Senate Indian Affairs committee's investigation into Abramoff and his associates' dealings with Indian casino clients.

Griles

Former Deputy Interior Secretary James Steven Griles (Photo courtesy DOI)
Abramoff's Indian clients paid him millions of dollars to influence decisions coming out of Congress and the Interior Department. Abramoff told them that he could influence decisions made at the department, especially by Griles. Now awaiting sentencing in the bribery scandal, Abramoff is serving six years in prison for a fraudulent Florida casino deal.

Friends of the Earth, which worked to expose ethical lapses in the Department of the Interior, said today that Griles' guilty plea vindicates their efforts.

"Steven Griles was the poster boy for corruption and influence peddling in the Bush Interior Department," Friends of the Earth said in a statement. "He led a rogues gallery of oil, gas and mining lobbyists-turned political appointees who used their jobs at Interior to advance the agenda of their former industry clients."

The environmental group said Griles' guilty plea "should mark the beginning - not the end - of efforts to clean house at the Department."

Griles, 59, of Falls Church, Virginia, entered his guilty plea this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, before District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Griles faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but prosecutors have agreed to ask the court to impose 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.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 26, 2007.

Between July 2001 and January 2005, Griles was the second highest-ranking official within the Department of the Interior, directly reporting to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

According to court documents, Griles and Abramoff met on March 1, 2001, five weeks after President George W. Bush took office for his first term.

They met through Italia Federici, a Republican environmental activist whom Griles had been dating, identified in the charging document filed by prosecutors this morning, as "Person A." This person was also the founder of a "purported tax-exempt organization" for which Griles had actively assisted in raising funds before he became DOI deputy secretary, the document states.

A week later, Griles, who had been serving on Bush's transition team for the Interior Department, was nominated by the president as deputy interior secretary, the department's chief operating officer. In that position, Griles represented the department on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.

Emails released as part of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Abramoff's lobbying activities detailed contacts Griles had with Abramoff or Federici.

"Both before and during Griles' DOI tenure, Abramoff sought and received - directly and through Person A - Griles' advice and intervention on various matters within the jurisdiction of DOI that directly affected Abramoff and his clients," the charging document states.

The court documents show that, beginning soon after Person A introduced Abramoff to Griles, Abramoff and certain of his Native American tribal clients became "significant donors to the purported tax-exempt organization which this person founded and operated."

"Ultimately, Abramoff personally and through his Native American tribal clients donated a total of $500,000 to the person's organization between March 2001 and May 2003."

Prosecutors dropped earlier claims that Griles did anything improper to help Abramoff or gained anything of value from the former Republican lobbyist and restricted their charges to obstruction of justice.

The plea agreement does not require Griles to help investigators with their ongoing grand jury probe of Abramoff's activities by providing information about the involvement of others.

Among those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the scandal besides Abramoff are former Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney and David Safavian, former deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Griles lives in Virginia with Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who until January was an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's environmental division.

Wooldridge, 46, served as Norton's deputy chief of staff, then as a Interior Department solicitor before moving to the Justice Department in November 2005.

She resigned from the Justice Department days after her colleagues in the criminal division met with Griles' lawyer to lay out their case against him.

The AP reported in February that Wooldridge, as the nation's environmental prosecutor, bought a $980,000 vacation home last year with Griles and Donald R. Duncan, the top Washington lobbyist for ConocoPhillips. Nine months later, she signed an agreement giving the company more time to clean up air pollution at some of its refineries.

Environmental groups sounded the alarm about Griles' illegal activities early in his tenure at the Department of the Interior.

By June 3, 2003 a coalition of environmental and government ethics organizations asked then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to launch a criminal investigation into Griles' conduct.

The organizations said Griles had failed to abide by recusal agreements that he made to protect the public from his former associations with oil and mining companies. Instead, they claimed Griles played a key role in several decisions that have directly benefited his former employer and clients.

They contended Griles had not been forthcoming about the nature of the $284,000 he was receiving annually as part of a four year, $1.1 million deal with his former employer National Environmental Strategies, NES, a firm that lobbies on behalf of oil, gas and coal interests.

In addition, the organizations wanted to know if Griles made false statements to Congress about the NES deal during his confirmation hearing.

Griles denied these allegations. Interior Department Press Secretary Mark Pfeifle told the Environment News Service at the time that "these are baseless charges from partisan special interest groups."

Pfeifle said the NES agreement was fully reviewed and approved by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and that Griles has "diligently complied with his recusal obligations."

But the groups were not persuaded, and their letter to Ashcroft requested the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate possible violations of criminal and civil conflict of interest laws, citing the need for a nonpartisan, grand jury investigation.

The Abramoff lobbying case now is being investigated by a task force of federal agents including special agents of the DOI Office of the Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"The foundation of good government rests on the faith Americans take that our public officials act in our interests," said Assistant Director Chip Burrus, FBI Criminal Investigative Division. "Steven Griles' role in obstructing the U.S. Senate's investigation into the corruption scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff is unacceptable. When a public official violates the public trust, confidence in government suffers. The FBI will continue to work with our partners to restore the confidence in government to which Americans are entitled."

In commenting on today's guilty plea, Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney said, "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."

Devaney said, "I am confident that the Griles conviction will serve as a warning to other government officials that when they intentionally make false statements or otherwise engage in misconduct, they will be vigorously prosecuted."