From Cobell to Abramoff, the downfall of J. Steven Griles
Few can say they didn't see it coming.
Everyone from environmental groups to the Cobell plaintiffs raised
alarms about J. Steven Griles, the former deputy secretary of the
Interior Department. At one point, Judge Royce Lamberth said the former
Bush administration official came "perilously close" to perjuring
The criticism was always brushed off as partisan attacks from
groups associated with Democrats, in the case of environmentalists.
On Cobell, it was viewed as another reason to remove Lamberth
from the long-running lawsuit.
But now it's official: J. Steven Griles is a criminal, having pleaded
guilty on Friday to lying about his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal.
"I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my
conduct and the consequences it may have," the former energy industry
lobbyist said in a written statement after he appeared in federal court
in Washington, D.C., the same building where he testified in
the Cobell trust fund case.
In a plea deal with federal prosecutors,
Griles admitted to lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
about his ties to Abramoff.
At a November 2, 2005, public hearing and during a October 20, 2005,
deposition with investigators brought on board by Sen. John McCain
(R-Arizona), he denied acting at the behest of the Republican
lobbyist on gaming, land-into-trust, federal recognition and other
"There was no special relationship for Mr. Abramoff in my
office," Griles told the committee. "It never did exist."
Court documents paint a different picture, one
where Griles had a rather close relationship, thanks
to "Person A," otherwise known as Italia Federici, the head of a group
called Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.
Federici is a former girlfriend of Griles and a close associate of
former Interior secretary Gale Norton, who has not
been implicated in the scandal.
"Consequently, during the defendant's tenure as DOI Deputy Secretary,
Abramoff had a unique relationship with the defendant that
distinguished him from other lobbyists and allowed him access to the
defendant directly and through Person A indirectly," the charge
of information states.
It was Federici who introduced Griles to Abramoff
a week before Griles was nominated to the second-highest
position at DOI in early March 2001.
"You definitely made another friend," Federici told Abramoff in
an e-mail that day.
From then on, Griles "advised Abramoff and intervened on issues"
affecting Abramoff's tribal clients, the court documents state.
The matters included: the nomination of an assistant
secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs; a land-into-trust application for
the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana that Abramoff's clients
opposed; a gaming compact
for the Jena Band that Abramoff's clients opposed; a land-into-trust
application for the Gun Lake Tribe of Michigan that Abramoff's clients opposed;
federal recognition for the Mashpee Wampanoag
Tribe of Massachusetts; a leadership dispute within the Meskwaki Tribe of
Iowa where one faction hired Abramoff; a leadership dispute within the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana;
and federal funding and other issues for the Mississippi
Band of Choctaw Indians, Abramoff's biggest client.
Despite his position as second-in-command at Interior, Griles denied
"From the time I became deputy
secretary, I had no responsibilities for Indian gaming issues," he told
Norton also backed up Griles amid the growing investigation.
"He did not make any efforts to get involved in gaming decisions,"
she said in December 2005, The Denver Post reported.
That stance called into question the department's handling of
the Cobell case. In a November 15, 2001, sworn declaration, Griles said
he was "in charge" of all Indian trust matters at Interior.
A few months later he reaffirmed his role as
"chief operating officer" with "overall authority and
responsibility ... for Indian trust reform."
It was this June 2002 statement that got him in trouble with
"In this regard, the Deputy Secretary's declaration exhibits
an alarming lack of candor and comes perilously close to
perjury by omission," Lamberth wrote of an effort to have a court
monitor who was critical of the department removed from the case.
Griles' credibility also came under attack for his role
in decisions affecting his former clients. Before he
joined the administration, he worked for energy companies
with business before Interior and other federal agencies.
After an 18-month investigation, Inspector General Earl E.
Devaney blasted Griles for his ethical lapses but couldn't
say whether any crime was committed.
Devaney called Griles' role
"a train wreck waiting to happen" due to
inadequate policies at the department
What Devaney apparently didn't know at the time was that Griles began
dating Sue Ellen Wooldridge, a former aide to Norton
who later became the top lawyer at Interior.
She was providing legal advice to Griles during the investigation
but both kept their relationship a secret even as Wooldridge
moved to the Justice Department, where she was in charge
of the division that worked on the Indian trust and other tribal
"In retrospect, all the warning signs were there," Devaney said
in a statement on Friday.
"In March of 2004, my office publicly released the results of our two year
investigation that detailed Griles' ethical lapses; a report that was
"Griles' criminal and
unethical conduct represents an abuse of the trust of the American people and
seriously undermined the excellent work of the many dedicated career and
political employees of this venerable Department," he added.
Devaney followed up with testimony to a House subcommittee last September
in which he said Norton was "unwilling to take any action against" Griles
because he made a "promise not to do so again." He resigned
several months later, in December 2004, and resumed his lobbying career by
signing up clients that included the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma
and the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington.
The Quapaw Tribe had a major trust and environmental lawsuit
pending at Interior and DOJ. But by the end of 2006,
as Griles became a target of the Abramoff investigation, the
tribe terminated him as its lobbyist. The Colvilles, with mining issues
before the government, also
fired Griles last year.
As part of his deal, Griles won't have to cooperate with
the ongoing investigation. He is the ninth person to
plead guilty in the Abramoff scandal. Another former Bush
administration official -- David Safavian, who used to lobby
for the National Indian Gaming Association -- was found guilty
of lying to the Senate by a jury.
"Our investigators and prosecutors continue to work diligently to ensure
that public corruption does not erode confidence in the integrity
of our government officials," said
assistant attorney general Alice S. Fisher of the criminal division
Griles faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine
for obstructing the Senate committee's probe. But federal prosecutors
are recommending a 10-month sentence, with half of the time in home
confinement or in a halfway house.
DOJ Press Release
Charge of Information
Statement of Facts
Earl Devaney Statement
November 2, 2005, Hearing:
November 15, 2001
June 4, 2002
Inspector General Report:J. Steven Griles
From the Indianz.Com Archive:Norton stripping BIA of trust duties
(November 16, 2001) | Tribal
leaders in uproar over proposal
(November 16, 2001) | Griles taking lead on trust reform
(November 5, 2001)
Secretary: J. Steven Griles
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