WASHINGTON - Former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles on Friday became the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, pleading guilty to obstructing justice by lying to a Senate committee.
The former No. 2 official in the Interior Department admitted in federal court that he lied to investigators about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Abramoff, who repeatedly sought Griles' intervention at Interior on behalf of Indian tribal clients.
Griles, an oil and gas lobbyist who became an architect of President Bush's energy policies, is the ninth person convicted in a continuing Justice Department probe. The government is still actively investigating other public officials linked to Abramoff, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Abramoff's ties to at least three other current or former Republican lawmakers have come under scrutiny in the criminal probe: Rep. John Doolittle of California, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and former Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana. None of them has been charged; all have denied wrongdoing. One former House member, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, already is serving a jail term on a guilty plea.
Griles pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstruction, admitting in a plea agreement that he lied in testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Nov. 2, 2005, and during an earlier deposition with the panel's investigators on October 20, 2005.
"I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have," he said in a statement. "When a Senate committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely and it is not my place to decide whether those questions are relevant or too personal."
Prosecutors recommended that Griles serve no more than a 10-month sentence - the minimum they could seek under sentencing guidelines - but only half of it in prison. The other five months would be in either a halfway house or under house arrest. The maximum sentence he could face is five years and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is set for June 26.
Griles acknowledged in court papers that he lied when he said his relationship with Abramoff wasn't unique. What was unique about it, he said in the court papers, was that Griles' then-girlfriend, Italia Federici, had introduced him to Abramoff.
The Justice Department says Federici's introduction gave Abramoff "more credibility as a lobbyist than Abramoff ordinarily would have had with Griles," quickly putting them on terms "that ordinarily would have taken years to develop."
Just two months ago, Griles faced the prospect of also being charged with fraud and criminal conflict of interest.
Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said the case shows the Justice Department is willing to go after "public corruption at all levels of government."
Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's inspector general, praised many Interior employees who he said told the truth about Griles during various investigations of him "sometimes at great risk to their own careers."
Barry Hartman, Griles' lawyer, said Griles did nothing improper for Abramoff and the government's investigation confirmed that Griles never took anything of value from "Abramoff or any other lobbyist, be it a drink, a meal, a sports ticket or a trip to Scotland." Griles and Abramoff met on March 1, 2001, through Federici, a Republican environmental activist. One week later, Griles, who had been serving on Bush's transition team for Interior, was nominated by the president as deputy to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Second in rank only to Norton, Griles effectively was Interior's chief operating officer while at the agency between July 2001 and January 2005, and its top representative on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. Griles, 59, lives in Falls Church, Va., with Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who until January was an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's environmental division. They began dating in February 2003, when Wooldridge was Norton's deputy chief of staff and counselor. Wooldridge became Interior's top lawyer and counseled Griles on ethics matters. The AP reported in February that Wooldridge, who became the nation's chief environmental prosecutor in November 2005, 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. In government papers, Griles acknowledged that he obstructed the Senate committee's investigation into Abramoff and his associates' dealings with Indian casino clients. Griles admits he testified falsely four times to the committee and once to the panel's investigators. Abramoff persuaded his Indian clients to pay him tens of millions of dollars to influence decisions coming out of Congress and the Interior Department. Part of his pitch to clients was that he had serious pull at the department, especially with Griles. Awaiting sentencing in the bribery scandal, Abramoff already is serving six years in prison for a bogus Florida casino deal. The extent of Abramoff's reach at Interior is still somewhat unclear. The court papers echo the Senate committee's account of events. Abramoff directed his tribal clients to give $500,000 to Federici's Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy from March 2001 to May 2003, about the time when Griles and Federici ended their romantic relationship. They began dating in 1998. Federici co-founded the advocacy council with Norton - before Norton joined the Bush administration - and with Grover Norquist, a conservative GOP activist, college friend of Abramoff and a close ally of Bush. Griles' office calendars, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, show frequent meetings with Federici occurring within days of those meetings being discussed in e-mails between Federici and Abramoff. Abramoff also sent e-mails to aides about meetings with Griles that don't appear on Griles' office calendars. Federici and Abramoff regularly exchanged e-mails from 2001 through most of 2003, seeking meetings with Griles or favors from him. Griles routinely passed on departmental information to Federici, who passed it on to Abramoff, according to e-mails and other evidence obtained by the Senate committee. (AP) On the Net: Interior Department: http://www.doi.gov AP-CS-03-23-07 1826EDT