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Oklahoma Indians defend Griles before sentencing

Two prominent citizens of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma are urging leniency for J. Steven Griles, a former Bush administration official who pleaded guilty to lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and former Bureau of Indian Affairs head Neal McCaleb are among the 91 people who submitted letters to Judge Ellen S. Huvelle. She is due to sentence Griles, the former deputy secretary at the Interior Department, next Tuesday for his crime.

On official tribal letterhead, Anoatubby urged Huvelle to consider the work Griles has done "on behalf of Native Americans." He cited a $40 million settlement over the Arkansas River and the controversial reorganization of the BIA.

"When he made a promise, he kept his word," Anoatubby wrote of Griles in the May 15 letter. The Chickasaw Nation shared the settlement with the Cherokee Nation and the Choctaw Nation.

McCaleb, a Chickasaw citizen who served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs for 18 months, likewise called attention to Griles and his work on trust reform. "Steve made many Native American friends under very challenging circumstances by his open and forthcoming nature on these issues," he wrote.

"I therefore respectfully request your consideration of leniency for him in this particular and isolated incident," McCaleb, who works for the Chickasaw Nation, said in the April 26 letter.

Anoatubby and McCaleb aren't the only Oklahoma Indians defending Griles. Ross Swimmer, the former chief of the Cherokee Nation who currently serves as Special Trustee at Interior, also wrote the judge.

On personal letterhead, Swimmer said he first met Griles during the Reagan administration when he served as the head of the BIA. At the time, Griles was assistant secretary for land and minerals.

"I found him to be ethical, honest and sincere in his efforts to ensure that Indian individuals and tribes received the correct amount of royalties and always acted in their best interests when issues were raised in the department regarding Indian royalty matters," Swimmer wrote on April 27.

Swimmer and Griles were involved in a high-profile trust mismanagement lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the tribe alleges the department colluded with energy lobbyists to reject a high royalty rate for a valuable coal deposit on the reservation.

Swimmer and Griles were both deposed for the lawsuit, although Swimmer later told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee he couldn't remember doing so. By a 6-3 vote, the justices ended up rejecting the tribe's claim based on the Indian Mineral Leasing Act but a lower court has kept the case open.

The Interior Secretary at the time was Donald P. Hodel, who also submitted a letter in Griles' defense. So did former Secretary Gale Norton, current associate deputy secretary Jim Cason and other current and former Interior officials.

Citing the trust reform task force that was proposed by then-National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, Norton said Griles "put together a diverse group of tribal leaders to explore and negotiate agency reorganizations and operational improvements."

"Overlaying all of this difficulty was an emotional component: for American Indians, the government's management of trust assets tied back to long decades of suffering abuse and injustice," she added.

Griles joined Interior in July 2001, the same time McCaleb came on board. But he outlasted McCaleb -- who resigned in November 2002 due to the pressures of the Cobell Indian trust fund lawsuit.

In November 2001, Griles declared under oath that he was "in charge" of all trust matters at Interior. A few months afterward, he reaffirmed his role as "chief operating officer" with "overall authority and responsibility ... for Indian trust reform" and submitted a declaration that accused a court officer of impropriety.

Judge Royce Lamberth, who has since been removed from the case, later said Griles came "perilously close" to perjuring himself in the declaration. Lamberth and Huvelle sit on the same court.

Selected Leters:
Bill Anoatubby | Jim Cason | Donald Hodel | Neal McCaleb | Gale Norton | Ross Swimmer

More Letters:
Exhibit Volume 1 (PDF 266 pages)