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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 himself.

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 tribal matters.

"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 being involved. "From the time I became deputy secretary, I had no responsibilities for Indian gaming issues," he told the committee.

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 Lamberth.

"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 litigation.

"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 virtually ignored."

"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 at DOJ.

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.

Relevant Documents:
DOJ Press Release | Charge of Information | Plea Agreement | Statement of Facts | Earl Devaney Statement

November 2, 2005, Hearing:
Transcript | Webcast | Testimony

Cobell Declarations:
November 15, 2001 | June 4, 2002

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)