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Top Interior official resigns from Bush administration

A top Interior Department official whose handling of the Indian trust tainted his controversial tenure in Washington, D.C., announced his resignation on Tuesday.

After three years as the department's deputy secretary, the number two position, J. Steven Griles told President Bush that it was "a great honor" to serve within the Bush administration. He said he plans to leave by the end of January 2005 or sooner, if a replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

In a letter, Interior Secretary Gale Norton praised her deputy's tenure, singling out his "exemplary" efforts to improve the management of billions of dollars of Indian trust assets and 54 million acres of trust land. "I know that the frustrations of Indian trust litigation have taken a toll on you and the other dedicated employees who labored countless evenings and weekends with you," she wrote.

Norton said Griles helped the Bush administration achieve "much progress" on trust reform but his time at the department was stained by several controversies. Upon joining the department in July 2001, he quickly found himself in trouble with tribal leaders, the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit and the federal judge handling the case.

"No one thought it could get worse but under Norton and Griles' leadership it has," Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund lawyer handling the Cobell case, said in an interview yesterday.

On November 14, 2001, Griles proudly swore under oath in a court affidavit that he was in "charge" of the Indian trust. But without prior consultation of tribes or individual Indians, the department proposed a reorganization that would strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its fiduciary duties and hand them to a new agency called the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management.

Griles and former BIA chief Neal McCaleb, who resigned in November 2002, quickly rushed to the National Congress of American Indians conference two weeks later to defend the proposal before an angry crowd of tribal leaders. It was a scene that would repeat itself several times over the next two years as Norton became less involved with the trust and Griles became the public face of the department.

It was an uncomfortable role for Griles, a well-paid Republican lobbyist more accustomed to working with executives of top energy companies than leaders of the Indian Country. Following the BITAM fiasco, he served as co-chair of a task force whose goal was to develop a solution in cooperation with tribes but which ultimately fell apart in late 2002 when Griles and other officials refused to embrace standards for the trust fund.

By that time, Griles had become a target in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit for trying to smear a court investigator whose reports embarrassed the Bush administration. In September 2002, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth slammed Griles for coming "perilously close to perjury" for submitting a sworn affidavit against court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, a former military intelligence specialist who was later taken off the case.

Griles also found himself on the defense for a rider in Interior's 2002 appropriations bill that would have severely limited the government's fiduciary obligations to individual Indians. Along with other officials, he denied involvement with the language, which was eventually removed, but a year later, the administration backed another rider that delayed an accounting of the Indian trust for a year.

Griles' past efforts at Interior during the Reagan administration came back to haunt him as well. In the 1980s, he oversaw a mining division whose scientists backed the Navajo Nation in a royalty dispute with Peabody Coal. Political appointees suppressed support for the tribe, leading to a $600 million breach of trust lawsuit that was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court in March 2003.

Earlier that year, Griles told member of Congress that the case, one of two heard by the court, would resolve the debate over trust standards. But the administration's arguments were rejected by the court and the department has done little to address the issue since then.

The controversies took a toll on Griles, whose last meeting with tribal leaders on the task force came in December 2002, shortly before McCaleb left the department. Since then, he hasn't played a role in any major Indian Country initiatives, attended NCAI meetings or testified before Congress on trust issues. Norton hasn't been visible on Indian affairs either.

In 2003, Griles was consumed by criticism for his prior role as a lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industry. Despite recusing himself from dealings affecting former clients, he continued to meet with them and was being paid $284,000 a year for work he had done for them before joining the administration.

An 18-month investigation by Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney turned up numerous instances in which Griles had questionable dealings with old clients. The March 2004 report, however, did not accuse Griles of violating any laws but called his appointment a "train wreck waiting to happen."

Griles is the second top-level Interior official to announce his resignation since Bush's re-election last month. Bennett Raley, the assistant secretary for water and science, left this past Friday.

Norton's fate is still unknown as the Bush administration waits for a second ruling in the Cobell lawsuit. Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Bush administration's attempt to exclude information technology from the scope of the case. The court is set to rule on a structural injunction that the administration opposes.

Inspector General Report:
J. Steven Griles Investigation (March 2004)

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)

Indianz.Com Profile:
Deputy Secretary: J. Steven Griles (3/9)