Friday, March 23, 2007

Former Deputy Interior Secretary will plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff corruption investigation

Ex-Interior No. 2 to plead guilty in Abramoff probe
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles will plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff corruption investigation, The Associated Press has learned.

Griles, an oil and gas lobbyist who became an architect of President Bush's energy policies while at the Interior Department between July 2001 and July 2005, is the highest ranking Bush administration official implicated in the Washington lobbying scandal.

The former No. 2 official at the Interior Department has agreed to a felony plea admitting that he lied five times to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and its investigators about his relationship with Abramoff, people involved in the case told the AP.

Griles will admit in federal court Friday that he concealed that he had a unique relationship with Abramoff, people involved in the case said on condition of anonymity, because a federal judge had not yet approved the plea deal. Griles and Abramoff met on March 1, 2001, through Italia Federici, a Republican environmental activist whom Griles had been dating.

That was just one week before 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 and its top representative on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.

Prosecutors dropped earlier allegations that Griles did anything improper to help Abramoff or gained anything of value from the former Republican lobbyist, the AP was told. The agreement does not require Griles to help investigators with their grand jury probe.

In exchange for the plea, federal prosecutors will seek no more than a 10-month prison sentence for Griles — the minimum they could seek under sentencing guidelines — but they will agree to let him serve half that in home confinement, according to one person involved in the case.

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.

The Justice Department planned to file papers proposing the plea deal with Griles. He was scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in a Washington at 11 a.m. ET Friday. Huvelle will decide Friday whether to accept or reject the plea, but her decision on sentencing is likely to come two to three months later.

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 on Nov. 2, 2005, and once to the panel's investigators two weeks earlier.

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. A congressman, several congressional aides and the administration's top procurement official also have either pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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