A former Bush administration official, once described by Jack Abramoff as “our guy” at the Interior Department, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to Senate investigators probing the scandal surrounding the convicted Republican lobbyist.
J. Steven Griles, a coal mining official who was deputy to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton between 2001 and 2005, became the ninth figure to be convicted of a crime as a result of the Justice Department investigation of Abramoff -- and the second to have held a high-ranking position in the Bush administration.
Griles, 59, admitted he lied when he told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005 that Abramoff had no special access to his office, when in fact the lobbyist was aggressively seeking help from the agency for Indian tribes he represented.
Griles also acknowledged failing to fully disclose his romantic relationship with a Republican environmental lobbyist who worked for Abramoff. The lobbyist, Italia Federici, also operated a nonprofit group that received $500,000 in donations from Abramoff’s tribal clients.
Griles pleaded guilty in U.S. district court to one count of obstruction of justice. Federal prosecutors said that they would recommend no more than a 10-month prison sentence for Griles -- the minimum under sentencing guidelines -- and that they would allow him to serve half the time in either a halfway house or under house arrest. The maximum sentence Griles could face is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is set for June 26.
His lawyers said the sentence recommendation reflected the fact that he did not receive anything of value from Abramoff. The agreement does not require Griles to help investigators with their grand jury probe.
“I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have,” Griles said in a statement released by his lawyers after he entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. “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. I apologize to my family, my friends, the committee and its staff.”
Griles’ plea follows a jury verdict last summer against former White House procurement chief David H. Safavian for concealing his ties to Abramoff. The Abramoff investigation has also resulted in the conviction of several congressional aides, as well as former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who began serving a 30-month prison term for corruption this month.
Abramoff is serving a six-year term in federal prison in Maryland in connection with a bogus floating casino deal, and is awaiting sentencing for congressional bribery.
Griles’ agreement was cited by the Justice Department as evidence that it was aggressively pursuing allegations of public corruption. Questions have arisen about the department’s commitment to such cases because of the firings of several U.S. attorneys who had been involved in corruption probes. The departure of some key members from the Abramoff prosecution team has also raised questions about the direction of that influence-peddling investigation.
“Today’s conviction ... again demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice to the aggressive investigation and prosecution of public corruption at all levels of government,” said Alice S. Fisher, assistant attorney general.
Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney said the willingness of some agency employees to come forward with information about Griles was central to the prosecution. He said those employees “told the truth about this top Interior official, sometimes at great risk to their own careers.”
Abramoff pulled in tens of millions of dollars in fees from Indian clients on the promise that he could influence members of Congress and the Interior Department. The department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which made it crucial to his lobbying schemes. Boasting of his contacts, he referred to Griles as “our guy” at Interior in a July 2001 e-mail to one tribal client.
The charges against Griles stemmed from testimony he gave the Senate Indian Affairs panel in November 2005, and during an October 2005 interview with congressional investigators.
In those appearances, Griles denied that he and Abramoff had a special relationship. Abramoff was “a lobbyist in town who occasionally I would see or have a discussion with, as I did with numerous, numerous other lobbyists around town,” he testified. “I didn’t distinguish him from anybody else.” Griles also deemed “outrageous” e-mails in which Abramoff claimed to have had special access to his office.
But he acknowledged in his plea agreement that both statements were lies. He also admitted that he lied and withheld information about the “true nature and extent of his relationship” with a woman described in court documents as “Person A.” That person has been identified as Federici, according to sources who requested anonymity because Federici has not been charged with crimes.
Griles admitted in court documents that Federici introduced him to Abramoff, and that the entre gave the lobbyist “instant and then continued access.” The introduction gave Abramoff “more credibility as a lobbyist than Abramoff ordinarily would have had with Griles,” the Justice Department said in court documents, and jump-started a lobbying relationship “that ordinarily would have taken years to develop.”
The court documents also revealed that, soon after “Person A” introduced Abramoff to Griles, Abramoff and certain of his tribal clients contributed a total of $500,000 to a “purported tax exempt organization that this person founded and operated” between 2001 and 2003.
Federici acknowledged in congressional testimony in 2005 that a group she founded, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, had received $500,000 from Abramoff and his clients. She testified that she believed Abramoff directed money to her group because he was generous, not because of her connections with Griles. Federici could not be reached Friday.
How Abramoff benefited from his connection at Interior is unclear. Prosecutors dropped allegations that Griles gained anything of value from the lobbyist.
Griles was invited by Abramoff to join a lavish golf outing to Scotland in August 2002. That junket became a symbol of the excesses in which Abramoff and his cronies indulged. But unlike other targets of the investigation, including Safavian and Ney, Griles declined the invitation.