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Griles admits guilt in Abramoff testimony

WASHINGTON - In the fall of 2005, former deputy secretary of the Interior Department J. Steven Griles told Senate investigators that criminal ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff did not enjoy ''special access to my office on behalf of his Indian gaming clients. ... There was no special relationship for Mr. Abramoff in my office. It never did exist.''

On March 23, Griles acknowledged that he had lied under oath to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and its staff about his relationship with Abramoff. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 26 on a charge of obstructing justice, a felony. Department of Justice prosecutors have asked for a comparatively light 10-month sentence in return for the guilty plea. The Washington Post newspaper reported that U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said she is not bound by the sentencing recommendation. The maximum sentence Griles can receive is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

According to documents released by the DOJ and other public records, Griles repeatedly intervened in department affairs on behalf of Abramoff and his client tribes. Griles had been introduced to Abramoff by a ''romantic and personal'' friend, Italia Federici. Federici co-founded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Action in 1997 and set up its Washington office in 1998. Through the council, Federici knew its co-founder, Gale Norton, the soon-to-be secretary of Interior. Griles, a mining industry lobbyist, raised funds for Federici's nonprofit organization until his confirmation as deputy secretary at Interior in 2001.

Introduced to Abramoff just prior to his confirmation hearing, Griles later learned of substantial contributions to CREA from Abramoff and his client tribes. The donations ultimately totaled $500,000. Both before and after Griles' confirmation, according to the DOJ, ''Abramoff occasionally sought and received ... advice and intervention on various matters within the jurisdiction of DOI that directly affected Abramoff and his clients.''

His clients in these cases were tribes, including tribes opposed to other tribes with gaming-related interests before Interior. Abramoff advertised his ''inside'' contacts at Interior when soliciting tribal business.

As part of its investigation, the SCIA concluded only that Abramoff thought he had influence with Griles. Griles' admissions to DOJ establish that his ''materially false and misleading statements and testimony'' misled the committee.

The committee report on Abramoff, known as ''Gimme Five - Investigation of Tribal Lobbying Matters,'' recommended among other things a close look at revising federal law on nonprofit organizations in view of the ''Gimme Five'' findings. A DOJ fact sheet on Griles' guilty plea, describing CREA as ''Organization A,'' stated that it ''purports to be a tax-exempt organization ... operated through contributions from donors.''

Abramoff, the former Republican lobbying impresario, is in prison cooperating with prosecutors. Griles is the ninth person convicted in the probe of Abramoff's activities. The Washington Post reported that ''more than 40 career law enforcement officials'' continue the ongoing investigations of a federal inter-agency task force on Abramoff.

Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney filed a 2004 report detailing Griles' dubious career at Interior, and later blasted the department publicly for letting Griles off with a slap on the wrist. Devaney issued a statement at the time of the guilty plea:

''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 [Interior] Department. I am most proud of the willingness of the many current and former Department employees who told the truth about this top Interior official, sometimes at great risk to their own careers.''

He also praised the work of investigators and prosecutors from the Interior inspector general's office, the FBI and the Public Integrity Section of DOJ, all of whom ''doggedly pursued this criminal activity.''