Norton protected Griles after $1M investigation

Former Interior secretary Gale Norton refused to rebuke her top deputy, J. Steven Griles, despite his questionable behaviors, a top official said on Wednesday.

In striking testimony to a House subcommittee, Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney described an ethical void at the department. "Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior," he told lawmakers.

That characterization apparently included Norton and Griles, both of whom have left the Bush administration. Griles admitted to Norton that he "exercised bad judgment" when he made decisions that affected his former lobbying clients, Devaney said.

Yet Norton was "unwilling to take any action against him," Devaney recalled. The reason: Griles made a "promise not to do so again," Devaney testified.

"Ethics failures on the part of senior department officials –- taking the form of appearances of impropriety, favoritism, and bias -– have been routinely dismissed with a promise 'not to do it again,'" Devaney said of his seven years serving through the Clinton and Bush administrations.

That wasn't the only startling revelation Devaney made in his testimony. He disclosed that his office spent "well over $1 million" on the investigation into Griles, who represented oil and gas companies before joining the Bush administration in July 2001.

The figure is alarming considering that Griles continued to receive $284,000 a year from his former lobbying firm on top of his federal government salary. His outside payments totaled more than $1 million over four years, about the same cost of the investigation.

Griles is now back at work in the lobbying field. His clients include mining companies and two tribes -- the Quapaw of Oklahoma and the Colville of Washington -- with mining-related issues.

The revolving door culture was a prime target of Devaney's testimony. "I have watched a number of high-level Interior officials leave the Department under the cloud of OIG investigations into bad judgment and misconduct," he said.

"Absent criminal charges, however, they are sent off in usual fashion, with a party paying tribute to their good service; wishing them well, to spend more time with their family or seek new opportunities in the private sector," he continued.

Griles resigned nine months after Devaney released the results of his 18-month investigation in March 2004. He soon came under more scrutiny after a former colleague accused him of making decisions to benefit the clients of Jack Abramoff, a convicted lobbyist.

Griles has denied any wrongdoing in that scandal and Norton continued to defend him even after she resigned from her post in March of this year. "I was in a position to see whether Steve influenced any decisions to favor Abramoff -- and I did not see Steve take any step in that direction," she told The Denver Rocky Mountain News.

Griles is said to be a part of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into Abramoff, according to various news reports.

Devaney was asked to testify before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform on royalty leases. Taxpayers stand to lose out on billions because the Interior Department forgot to include certain provisions in more than 1,000 leases with oil and gas companies.

The leases only affect drilling on federal land. Indian lands are not at issue based on information on the record.

The hearing continues today with testimony from P. Lynn Scarlett, the current deputy secretary at Interior, and Johnnie Burton, the director of the Minerals Management Service.

Relevant Documents::
Devaney Testimony | Hearing Information

Interior Department Profile:
Deputy Secretary: J. Steven Griles (March 9, 2001)

Relevant Links:
House Committee on Government Reform - http://reform.house.gov