WASHINGTON -- A former Bush administration official, once described by Jack Abramoff as "our guy" at the Interior Department, pleaded guilty yesterday to lying to Senate investigators probing the scandal surrounding the convicted Republican lobbyist.
J. Steven Griles, a coal mining official who was deputy to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton between 2001 and 2005, became the ninth figure to be convicted of a crime as a result of the Justice Department investigation into Abramoff - and the second to have held a high-ranking position in the Bush administration.
Griles, 59, admitted that he lied when he told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005 that Abramoff had no special access to his office, when, in fact, the lobbyist was aggressively seeking to obtain help from the agency for Indian tribes that he represented.
Griles also acknowledged failing to fully disclose his romantic relationship with a GOP environmental lobbyist who worked for Abramoff. The lobbyist, Italia Federici, also operated a nonprofit group that received $500,000 in donations from Abramoff's tribal clients.
Griles pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of obstruction of justice. Under the plea agreement, federal prosecutors said that they would recommend no more than a 10-month prison sentence for Griles - the minimum under sentencing guidelines - and that they would allow him to serve half the time in either a halfway house or under house arrest. Griles could face a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced June 26.
His lawyers said the sentence recommendation reflected the fact that he did not receive anything of value from Abramoff. The agreement does not require Griles to help investigators with their grand jury probe.
"I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have," Griles said in a statement released by his lawyers after he entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. "When a Senate committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely, and it is not my place to decide whether those questions are relevant or too personal. I apologize to my family, my friends, the committee and its staff."
Griles' plea follows a jury verdict last summer against former White House procurement chief David Safavian for concealing his ties to Abramoff. The Abramoff investigation has also resulted in the conviction of several congressional aides, as well as former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, who began serving a 30-month prison term for corruption this month.
Abramoff is serving a six-year term in federal prison in Maryland in connection with a bogus floating casino deal, and is awaiting sentencing on congressional bribery charges.
Griles' agreement was cited by the Justice Department as evidence that it was aggressively pursuing allegations of public corruption. Questions have arisen about the department's commitment to such cases because of the firings of several U.S. attorneys who had been involved in corruption probes.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.