Lobbying Probe Shifts to Republican Environmental Advocate

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The head of a Republican environmental advocacy group has been told officially by federal investigators that she is a target for criminal prosecution in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe.

Italia Federici, who co-founded the group with former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and conservative GOP activist Grover Norquist, was told by the Justice Department she faces up to five charges in the influence-peddling scandal that has produced convictions against one lawmaker, two senior Bush administration officials and several congressional aides.

While running the advocacy group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, Federici was involved in a romantic relationship with J. Steven Griles, who was deputy interior secretary during President Bush's first term. Griles last month became the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the lobbying scandal when he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing justice by lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005.

Griles, a longtime oil and gas lobbyist, became an architect of Bush's energy policies while serving as No. 2 at the Interior Department. He admitted in federal court that he lied to investigators about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Abramoff, who repeatedly sought Griles' intervention at Interior on behalf of Indian tribal clients.

Investigators have been looking at the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Federici's environmental advocacy council received from Abramoff's Indian tribal clients and from energy and mining companies, including some of Griles' former clients.

Federal prosecutors told Federici in a confidential letter dated Jan. 19 that they are considering bringing charges of fraud, impeding the Internal Revenue Service, tax evasion, obstructing the Senate committee and testifying falsely to the committee and its investigators. The letter was first reported by Legal Times.

"The investigation is focused on the allegedly illegal manner in which you operated the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, commonly known as CREA," the letter says. "The government has also received information that you may have assisted others in depriving the American public of the honest services of at least one administration official."

Federici's attorney, Jonathan Rosen, declined Wednesday to comment on the letter or other aspects of the case.

The Senate committee turned up e-mails detailing numerous contacts between Abramoff and Federici and between Federici and Griles from 2001 to 2003. Many of them seek meetings with Griles or favors from him.

Griles' office calendars, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, show meetings with Federici soon after they were discussed in e-mails between Federici and Abramoff. 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.

Abramoff persuaded his Indian clients to pay him tens of millions of dollars to influence decisions coming out of Congress and the Interior Department. Abramoff awaits sentencing in the bribery scandal, but is serving a six-year prison sentence for fraud in a Florida casino deal.

Federici was offered the chance to meet with prosecutors and agents in the case, and to negotiate a plea deal that would require her to plead guilty to at least one felony charge.

Any such cooperation would be voluntary but "time is of the essence," Federici was advised in the letter sent her by a trial attorney with the Justice Department tax division's criminal enforcement section.