- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

A former top Interior Department official pleaded guilty yesterday to felony charges of obstructing Congress in an investigation into convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

J. Steven Griles, the highest-ranking Bush administration official to be convicted in the Abramoff probe, admitted he lied to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in November 2005 about his relationship with Abramoff during its investigation of the lobbyist.

“I am sorry for my wrongdoing,” Griles told U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in Washington. “I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have.”

Asked by Judge Huvelle whether he failed to accurately portray his relationship with Abramoff before the committee, Griles replied, “Yes, your honor.”

Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who heads the Justice Department’s criminal division, said Griles lied and concealed information about his relationship with Abramoff and obstructed the committee’s investigation into the lobbyist’s influence and access at the Interior Department.

Court records show Griles was interviewed by Senate investigators on Oct. 20, 2005, and testified before the full committee on Nov. 2, 2005.

Mrs. Fisher said the committee was investigating, among other things, the level of access Abramoff had to Griles while he served as Interior’s No. 2 official and that Griles falsely told the investigators and the committee how and why his relationship with Abramoff developed and the nature of Abramoff’s access to him.

She said Griles admitted that Abramoff developed “instant and then continued access to him directly as well as indirectly through Person A,” identified in a criminal information as someone with whom Griles had a “close, personal relationship.” Person A has been identified by law-enforcement authorities as Italia Federici, who ran the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a conservative think tank.

“Today’s conviction — the ninth stemming from the Abramoff investigation — again demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice to the aggressive investigation and prosecution of public corruption at all levels of government,” Mrs. Fisher said.

Griles, 59, of Falls Church, will be sentenced on June 26 and faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But prosecutors are expected to ask the court to impose a sentence of 10 months in exchange for the guilty plea, five of which could be served in a halfway house or in home detention.

According to the factual basis for the guilty plea signed by Griles, Abramoff gained access to Griles through Person A, for whom Griles had actively assisted in raising funds before he became deputy secretary.

The document said Person A introduced Abramoff to Griles in March 2001, just before he was nominated as deputy secretary and that during his tenure at Interior, Abramoff sought and received through Person A, Griles’ advice and intervention on matters that directly affected Abramoff and his clients.

It shows that beginning soon after Person A introduced Abramoff to Griles, Abramoff and some of his tribal clients became significant donors to the tax-exempt organization. Ultimately, Abramoff personally and through his tribal clients donated $500,000 to Person A’s organization between March 2001 and May 2003.

In his guilty plea, Griles admitted he made false and misleading statements when he testified before the Senate committee, specifically when he said “Mr. Abramoff is no different than any other lobbyist.”

The committee concluded in a report that given a lack of evidence, it was unable to arrive at any definitive conclusions as to the veracity of Griles’ testimony on his relationship and interaction with Abramoff.

Abramoff is serving a 70-month prison sentence for his guilty plea on conspiracy and fraud charges brought in Miami. Abramoff has also pleaded guilty to corruption, fraud, conspiracy and tax charges in Washington.

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