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Former Interior deputy denies Abramoff influenced BIA decisions

WASHINGTON -- A former top aide to Department of the Interior Secretary
Gale Norton denied that he tried to influence decisions favoring the casino
interests of Indian tribes who were clients of indicted lobbyist Jack
Abramoff.

Former Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles told a Senate Indian
Affairs Committee hearing Nov. 2 that his connection to Abramoff was
"nothing more and nothing less" than his relationships with other
lobbyists.

Griles refuted Abramoff's claims, made in e-mails, that he had special
access to him and Norton through Italia Federici, the president of a
conservative group and friend of the secretary.

"That is outrageous and it is not true. If he got his money in part by
misrepresenting his relationship with me, I'm extremely pleased that you're
investigating this," Griles told committee Chairman Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., and the committee.

It was the committee's fourth hearing investigating Abramoff and his
partner Michael Scanlon, who are accused of bilking six tribes of more than
$80 million over the past few years.

Some of the money was used for weddings, house improvements and
contributions to personal charities and causes, including a "sniper
workshop" in an illegal Israeli settlement in occupied Palestine.

The Justice Department, FBI and Internal Revenue Service are conducting a
concurrent investigation.

Abramoff was a major GOP fund raiser described by indicted former House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay as his "dearest friend." Scanlon is DeLay's
former press secretary.

Abramoff was indicted in August by a federal grand jury in Florida on
charges of wire fraud and conspiracy involving the purchase of a fleet of
casino boats.

The investigation has uncovered "a tangled web," committee Vice Chairman
Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said.

"It's like a bad novel," Dorgan said.

McCain made a point of clarifying that there is "no evidence to suggest
that Secretary Norton" knew of Abramoff's using her name in seeking fees
from tribes.

Griles' protestations of innocence were refuted by one-time Interior
colleague Michael Rosetti, Norton's former legal counsel. Rosetti said he
became "alarmed" when Griles took a sudden interest in 2003 in attending
meetings with Norton and "participating in the decision-making process"
regarding the Jena Band of Choctaw's efforts to open a casino near the
Texas-Louisiana border.

The Jena are rivals of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, who operate a
casino near Lake Charles, La. The Coushattas paid Abramoff and Scanlon "an
astounding $37 million" in lobbying fees and other expenses, McCain said.

Rosetti said he received from Griles a binder of information critical of
the Jena Tribe's application to Interior to take land into trust for its
casino.

"After extensive conversations I learned from Mr. Griles it came from a
chief of staff by way of a lobbyist who turned out to be Mr. Abramoff,"
Rosetti said.

Rosetti said Griles' interest in the Indian gaming issue was so worrisome
that in a "pointed exchange" in front of two witnesses he asked Griles
"whose water he was carrying on this issue."

Griles said he did not recall the incident and denied ever discussing the
Jena Tribe with Norton.

Griles was also questioned about his relationship with Italia Federici,
head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. The
nonprofit council was founded in the 1990s by Norton and conservative
anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The council once funded a campaign to
defeat McCain's proposed legislation to reduce the emissions of greenhouse
gases, according to The New York Times.

Abramoff directed at least four of his tribal clients to donate $225,000 to
CREA from 2001 to 2003.

"Documents obtained in the course of this investigation suggest that Mr.
Abramoff might have had his tribal clients pay so much because he perceived
that CREA's president, Italia Federici, would help him get inside
information about, and possibly influence, tribal issues pending at the
Department of the Interior," McCain said.

Dozens of e-mails from Abramoff and Federici discuss meetings and calls
with Griles about the Jena and other Indian issues.

"What are we to make of that? It's certainly at odds with your [Griles']
opening statement," Dorgan said.

Griles said he had not seen the e-mails and could not "comment on what one
person says to another or what their intent or meaning is. Italia Federici
is a friend. Gale Norton introduced me to her."

Federici has been interviewed by committee investigators and was
subpoenaed, but did not appear at the hearing.

A special hearing will be held with Federici "when we are able to track her
down. It's very unfortunate she has chosen not to cooperate in this
hearing," ...