WASHINGTON – Former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles pleaded guilty Friday to obstruction of justice in a Senate committee's investigation, becoming the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal.
The former No. 2 official in the Interior Department admitted in federal court that he lied to the Senate about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Abramoff, who repeatedly sought Griles' intervention at the agency on behalf of Abramoff's Indian tribal clients.
Griles pleaded guilty to a felony charge for testifying falsely before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Nov. 2, 2005, and during an earlier deposition with the panel's investigators on October 20, 2005.
"I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have," Griles said in a statement. "When a Senate committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely and it is not my place to decide whether those questions are revelant or too personal. I apologize to my family, my friends, the committee and its staff."
In court, he was asked: "Do you acknowledge that these were materially false statements about your relationship with Mr. Abramoff?"
"Yes, your honor," Griles replied to U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huville.
Under the plea agreement, federal prosecutors are seeking no more than a 10-month prison sentence for Griles — the minimum they could ask for under sentencing guidelines — but would let him serve half that in home confinement. A court decision on sentencing is likely to come two or three months later.
Griles, an oil and gas lobbyist who became an architect of President Bush's energy policies, acknowledged concealing that his relationship with Abramoff had been unique — because of their introduction through Griles' then-girlfriend, Italia Federici.
Prosecutors dropped earlier allegations that Griles did anything improper to help Abramoff or gained anything of value from the former Republican lobbyist. The agreement does not require Griles to help investigators with their grand jury probe.
Griles and Abramoff met on March 1, 2001, through Federici, a Republican environmental activist. One week later, Griles, who had been serving on Bush's transition team for Interior, was nominated by the president as deputy to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Second in rank only to Norton, Griles effectively was Interior's chief operating officer while at the agency between July 2001 and January 2005, and its top representative on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
Griles lives in Virginia with Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who until January was an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's environmental division.
The AP reported in February that Wooldridge, as the nation's environmental prosecutor, bought a $980,000 vacation home last year with Griles and Donald R. Duncan, the top Washington lobbyist for ConocoPhillips. Nine months later, she signed an agreement giving the company more time to clean up air pollution at some of its refineries.
In government papers, Griles acknowledges he obstructed the Senate committee's investigation into Abramoff and his associates' dealings with Indian casino clients. Griles admits he testified falsely four times to the committee and once to the panel's investigators.
Abramoff persuaded his Indian clients to pay him tens of millions of dollars to influence decisions coming out of Congress and the Interior Department. Part of his pitch to clients was that he had serious pull at the department, especially with Griles.
Awaiting sentencing in the bribery scandal, Abramoff already is serving six years in prison for a bogus Florida casino deal. Others convicted so far in the wide-ranging, influence peddling include former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and former White House official David Safavian.
Abramoff's ties to at least three other current or former Republican lawmakers have come under scrutiny in the probe: Rep. John Doolittle of California, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and former Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.
The extent of Abramoff's reach at Interior is still somewhat unclear. The court papers echo the Senate committee's account of events.
Abramoff directed his tribal clients to give $500,000 to Federici's Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy from March 2001 to May 2003, about the time when Griles and Federici ended their romantic relationship. They began dating in 1998.
Federici co-founded the advocacy council with Norton — before Norton joined the Bush administration — and with Grover Norquist, a conservative GOP activist, college friend of Abramoff and a close ally of Bush.
Griles' office calendars, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, show frequent meetings with Federici occurring within days of them being discussed in e-mails between Federici and Abramoff.
Abramoff also sent e-mails to aides about meetings with Griles that don't appear on Griles' office calendars. Federici and Abramoff regularly exchanged e-mails from 2001 through most of 2003, seeking meetings with Griles or favors from him. Griles routinely passed on departmental information to Federici, who passed it on to Abramoff, according to e-mails and other evidence obtained by the Senate committee.
Griles acknowledged in the plea agreement that he lied when he told the Senate committee that it was "outrageous and is not true" that Abramoff had any special access to him at Interior and that no "special relationship" existed between them. He also conceded that he misled the committee's investigators when he told them his relationship with Abramoff was "no different" than with other lobbyists.
Griles now admits those statements were untrue because Abramoff was the only lobbyist he ever met while at Interior through a woman that Griles was dating. Griles and Federici had a romantic relationship between 1998 and mid-2003, the documents say. They met through Norton, for whom Federici once did campaign work.
Griles lied in trying to "conceal the true nature" of how he met Abramoff and "did not testify fully and truthfully" about his relations with Federici or Abramoff's access to him, the documents say.
The Justice Department says Federici's introduction gave Abramoff "more credibility as a lobbyist than Abramoff ordinarily would have had with Griles," quickly putting them on terms "that ordinarily would have taken years to develop."
Prosecutors in January had outlined other possible charges against Griles. They included "honest services" fraud, based on his meetings with Abramoff; lying to Congress about information favorable to Abramoff that Griles had passed on to other Interior officials; and lying to Congress and criminal conflict of interest over a job that Abramoff had offered to Griles.