Another Ethics Brush Fire Flares Along Potomac

Times Staff Writer

Two former high-level Interior Department officials clashed before a Senate committee Wednesday over whether one of them -- while still in his government post -- sought to pressure Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on behalf of controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s tribal clients.

J. Steven Griles, a former deputy Interior secretary, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that he had no special relationship with Abramoff and gave him no special access, as the lobbyist had claimed in e-mails and at least one interview.

“That is outrageous ... and it is not true,” Griles said.

But much of Griles’ testimony was disputed by the man seated beside him at the witness table, former Interior Department Counsel Michael Rosetti.


Griles’ efforts to insinuate himself into Norton’s decision-making sessions on behalf of an Indian tribe Abramoff represented so worried him, Rosetti told senators, that he confronted the deputy secretary before two other officials and asked, “What was he doing? Whose water was he carrying?”

The public dispute between the two offered a dramatic close to hearings that had explored the complex web of influence, money and access Abramoff wove as one of Washington’s best-connected lobbyists.

Abramoff has been indicted in federal court on six counts of fraud and conspiracy for his role in the 2000 purchase of a fleet of Florida gambling boats. He has pleaded not guilty.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on whether Abramoff, when working for the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, relied on Griles to influence the Interior Department to block a rival tribe from opening a casino that would compete with the Coushattas’ gaming business.


Rosetti recounted an incident in which, he said, Griles gave him a binder filled with letters and documents critical of the bid by the Jenna Band of the Choctaw tribe to build a casino one hour from the Coushattas’ $300-million-a-year casino. Griles, Rosetti said, wanted him to make sure Norton saw the file.

Rosetti said he had to press Griles to learn that the folder had been compiled by Abramoff.

Griles denied that he said the binder came from Abramoff, and he said he never knew who had put it on his desk.

He also denied published reports that he was pressuring Interior officials on Abramoff’s behalf as he was negotiating with the lobbyist for a job. Griles said he was surprised when Abramoff introduced him to a partner in Greenberg Traurig, the lobbying firm Abramoff worked for, who offered him a job.

Griles said the offer “raised alarms with me,” and he reported the incident to the Interior Department’s ethics officer. While in office, Griles had been investigated, but was never charged, for allegedly maintaining close ties to his previous employer, a lobbying firm, and its clients.

A statement issued Wednesday by Abramoff’s spokesman, Andrew Blum, described the lobbyist as having been put “into the impossible position of not being able to defend himself in the public arena until the proper authorities have had a chance to review all accusations.”

In a statement Wednesday night, the Interior Department said that its inspector general was “reviewing all aspects of Mr. Abramoff’s contacts with the department -- both direct contacts and those which may have been conducted by surrogates.” That review, the statement said, “precludes further comment on these issues.”

The statement noted that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said Wednesday there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by Norton.


The statement added that “despite Mr. Abramoff’s efforts, the department ultimately issued a ruling contrary to the position he was advocating on behalf of his tribal client.”

The Abramoff investigation is one of several ethical headaches confronting the GOP that Democrats have charged add up to a culture of corruption in official Washington -- most recently the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in connection with the probe of the leak of a covert CIA officer’s identity.

But Republican lawmakers have been watching the Abramoff scandal unfold in the media and before the Indian Affairs Committee with particular dread, because the lobbyist had extensive connections with party officials and because his relentless pursuit of profit -- documented in a string of e-mails between Abramoff and his onetime partner, Michael Scanlon, that the committee has released -- casts an unflattering light on the role of lobbyists.

Investigations into his activities have already led to one indictment of a onetime government official: the former head of procurement for the General Services Administration, David Safavian, has been charged with making false statements and obstruction of justice in connection with a golf trip Abramoff took in 2002 with Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and others.

McCain’s hearings have focused on Abramoff’s dealings with six tribes, including the Agua Caliente band in Palm Springs. According to McCain, the tribes paid Abramoff and Scanlon at least $66 million to advance gaming and other interests.

McCain’s hearings and newspaper accounts also have raised questions about trips Abramoff arranged for lawmakers, including Ney and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay has asked the House Ethics Committee to look into his travels and insists that he did nothing wrong.

A Justice Department joint task force is carrying out a wide-ranging criminal investigation into Abramoff’s dealings with the tribes. That investigation is expected to continue for months.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on Abramoff’s dealings with the Coushatta tribe, which paid Abramoff and Scanlon about $36 million between 2001 and 2004 to defeat efforts by rival tribes to open casinos.


Tribal representatives testified that the Abramoff scandal had damaged the tribe, leading to an upheaval in its leadership and a sense of victimization in its dealings with Washington.

“They hit the jackpot with us: a Native American tribe with a fairly new casino in the midst of a political transition and naive to the underworld of governmental affairs,” said Coushatta Chairman David Sickey.

To extract millions from the tribe, Sickey said, Abramoff and Scanlon “exaggerated political threats and they exaggerated economic threats. Then they exaggerated their ability to deal with these exaggerated threats.”

He testified that Abramoff and Scanlon tricked the tribe into paying $1 million to Greenberg Traurig that later was transferred on Abramoff’s orders to Capital Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit group set up by Abramoff, without the tribe’s knowledge. The money was used to fund a private Jewish boys school that Abramoff founded.