Ex-U.S. official pleads guilty in Abramoff probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles pleaded guilty on Friday to obstructing Congress, becoming the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff walks outside Miami's courthouse March 29, 2006. The former No. 2 official in the Interior Department has agreed to plead guilty to lying to Congress about his role in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, officials familiar with the case said on Friday. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The former No. 2 Interior Department official said in court that he lied to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee as it examined the wide-ranging scandal involving the convicted former Republican lobbyist Abramoff.

“Is it your position that ... you did not accurately portray your relationship with Mr. Abramoff?” Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Griles replied.

Prosecutors recommended a 10-month sentence, of which five months could be served in home confinement, far short of the five-year maximum they could have recommended. Sentencing was set for June 26.

Democrats used the scandal in the 2006 campaign to paint Republicans as a party of corruption, a charge that helped the Democrats win back control of Congress.

Griles, 59, was deputy secretary at the Interior Department from 2001 to 2005.

According to the charges, Griles was introduced to Abramoff by his sometime girlfriend shortly before he started at the Interior Department.

That woman was identified by a law enforcement source as Italia Federici, who headed an organization called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.

Abramoff encouraged his Indian-tribe clients to contribute to Federici’s group and sought to influence Interior Department actions that could affect his clients’ lucrative casinos.

“Abramoff had a unique relationship with the defendant that distinguished him from other lobbyists and allowed him access to the defendant directly,” according to the one-count criminal charge filed by the Justice Department.

The document said Abramoff occasionally sought and received Griles’ “advice and intervention” on issues affecting his clients.

Griles lied to the Indian Affairs Committee about the level of Abramoff’s access and the nature of his relationship with Federici, according to the Justice Department.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Griles apologized to the committee and said he was sorry for his wrongdoing.

“When a Senate committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely and it is not my place to decide whether these questions are relevant or too personal,” the statement said. Griles and his lawyers left the courthouse without comment.

Griles will not have to cooperate in the Justice Department’s continuing Abramoff investigation.

Abramoff is currently serving a six-year prison sentence and cooperating with investigators.

Former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is also serving a 30-month prison sentence for accepting bribes, while former Bush administration procurement official David Safavian has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for lying and obstructing justice during the investigation.

Several former Republican congressional aides have also pleaded guilty as part of the investigation.

Additional reporting by James Vicini