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Legal Times (USA): Official’s Romance Raises Conflict Questions

EXTRACT: GUARDING THE HENHOUSE: It’s not clear when Norton became aware of the relationship between her two subordinates. Norton resigned from the government in March 2006 and is now a corporate lawyer for Royal Dutch Shell Inc. A lawyer for the former interior secretary said she was traveling overseas and could not be reached for comment.

By Jason McLure
February 5, 2007

When Sue Ellen Wooldridge stepped down last month from her job as the Justice Department’s top environmental prosecutor, it wasn’t her desire to return to the private sector that was notable, it was her timing.

Days earlier, Wooldridge’s boyfriend — oil and energy lobbyist J. Steven Griles — had been put on notice that he was a target of the federal public-corruption investigation involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The romance between Wooldridge, 46, and Griles, 60, is significant and has had an impact beyond the Justice Department’s Abramoff probe. Both previously held high-ranking jobs at the Interior Department — Griles was deputy secretary there, while Wooldridge was deputy chief of staff to then-Secretary Gale Norton and later the agency’s top lawyer.

At Interior, they concealed their relationship from multiple department investigators looking into Griles’ contacts with former lobbying clients — even as Wooldridge responded to the investigators on Griles’ behalf and, later, as solicitor, oversaw Interior’s ethics office, according to two current government officials with knowledge of the investigation and one former Interior official. These sources say the romance between Wooldridge and Griles was going on as early as February 2004.

Details of their relationship raise questions about the vetting process for presidential nominees at both the Justice and Interior departments, in addition to Wooldridge’s candor with those who examined her credentials.

According to a transcript of her March 11, 2004, Senate confirmation hearing for the Interior solicitor job, as well as her written answers to Senate questions, Wooldridge did not disclose her relationship with Griles, despite being asked about Interior’s investigation of Griles in a written question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and despite the fact that, as solicitor, Wooldridge would oversee the department’s ethics office, which had been monitoring Griles.

Nor was the relationship disclosed to Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney, who conducted an 18-month investigation into numerous ethical allegations against Griles. Upon learning of the relationship after Griles left Interior in December 2004, Devaney, according to two sources, was furious.

Wooldridge left Interior in the fall of 2005, when she was confirmed to become the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. According to a senior DOJ official, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other top Justice officials were unaware of her relationship with Griles until months after Wooldridge had been confirmed. That disclosure came long after FBI agents and prosecutors in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division had begun investigating Griles as part of the Abramoff probe, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Efforts to contact Wooldridge and Griles in person at a townhouse in Falls Church, Va., owned by Griles and listed by both individuals as a home address in a public-records database, were unsuccessful. (Wooldridge also owns two houses in Arlington.) Phone messages left at Griles’ home number were not returned. Barry Hartman, a lawyer for Griles in the Abramoff probe, also did not respond to repeated phone messages or to a detailed list of questions provided for this article.

The law firm representing Wooldridge, D.C.’s James Sharp & Associates, responded to a lengthy set of questions with a statement saying, “Ms. Wooldridge has testified before the grand jury, but is not now nor was she ever” a target in the Abramoff probe. The statement also said that after Griles left Interior to return to lobbying in December 2004, “Ms. Wooldridge recused herself from any matters involving Mr. Griles’ clients, whether at the Department of Interior or Department of Justice.” The law firm refused to answer any other questions regarding Wooldridge and Griles, and did not dispute or confirm the time frame of the relationship laid out by the current and former officials.

In response to a series of written questions regarding Wooldridge, an Interior spokesman said in a statement last week that “at some point following her move to the Solicitor’s Office, Ms. Wooldridge did verbally inform the Designated Agency Ethics Official that she and Mr. Griles had begun dating.” Wooldridge received a recess appointment on May 28, 2004.

This spokesman said he had “no knowledge of the timeline of the dating relationship.”

The spokesman’s statement in part backs up the claim of Wooldridge’s lawyers that after Griles left Interior, Wooldridge verbally recused herself from matters involving his clients.

After 14 months on the job at the Justice Department, Wooldridge offered little explanation for her decision to step down in her Jan. 8 resignation letter, stating simply that after six years in government service she had “decided to return to the private sector.”

But even those close to Wooldridge suggest that her relationship with Griles may have cost Wooldridge her government career.

“She has a personal relationship with Mr. Griles, and Mr. Griles is the subject of an investigation,” says Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Wooldridge’s friend. “I assume that would make anyone uncomfortable.” Wooldridge worked for Lungren while he was California attorney general. Lungren also testified on Wooldridge’s behalf at both her Senate confirmation hearings.


Griles resigned his lobbying position with the firm of Lundquist, Nethercutt & Griles on Jan. 10. The Washington Post reported that day that he’d been informed the previous week he was a target in the Abramoff probe for allegedly making false statements to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

In e-mails released as part of a report on the investigation by that committee, Abramoff referred to Griles as “our guy” at Interior. The June 2006 report noted that Griles had met with Abramoff and an associate about coming to work for Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig. The report also scrutinized tens of thousands of dollars in donations by Abramoff’s tribal clients to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group with close ties to Griles and then-Interior Secretary Norton. The report said it could not “definitively” conclude that Griles had assisted Abramoff’s clients at Interior, but it also noted that the committee could not reach “any definitive conclusions as to the veracity of Griles’ testimony on his relationship, and interaction, with Abramoff.”

Griles and Wooldridge came to Interior from different backgrounds. Griles is a career Washington insider. Before becoming Interior deputy secretary in 2001, he spent eight years in the Reagan administration’s Interior Department, including five years as the assistant secretary for land and minerals management. He’d then spent years lobbying for coal, oil, and other corporate interests.

Wooldridge came to Washington in 2001 as a rising star with an earthy sense of humor. Soon after arriving, she made news for joking at a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., about her experiences castrating sheep with her teeth while growing up on a small California farm. The captain of the women’s basketball team at the University of California, Davis, Wooldridge went on to Harvard Law School and returned to California in 1987 to work for the Sacramento firm of Diepenbrock, Wulff, Plant & Hannegan.

There she met Lungren, who was impressed with her intelligence and drive. Lungren was elected California attorney general in 1990. After winning re-election in 1994, he brought Wooldridge to the state legal office. There, Lungren made her California’s lead negotiator in the multibillion-dollar settlement, known as the Master Settlement Agreement, between tobacco companies and 46 state governments.

It was during those negotiations that Wooldridge met Norton, who was then Colorado’s attorney general, and cemented a bond that would carry her to Washington, friends of Wooldridge say.


After George W. Bush became president, Norton became secretary of the interior. Wooldridge was brought on as her deputy chief of staff in 2001, and she quickly became involved in attempting to resolve disputes over access to water in the West. The No. 2 position at Interior went to Griles, who overcame opposition to his nomination by a number of environmental and watchdog groups for his background as an energy lobbyist.

By late 2002, Griles was the focus of what would become a wide-ranging ethics investigation by the inspector general’s office at Interior. Among the activities being scrutinized: the possibility that Advanced Power Technologies Inc., a former client of Griles, was given preferred treatment for Interior contracts; a dinner party Griles planned for senior Interior officials at the house of Marc Himmelstein, his former lobbying partner, whose firm was then paying Griles severance of more than a quarter-million dollars annually; and contacts by Griles with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding an assessment of a massive coal-bed methane project planned by some of his former clients in Wyoming and Montana.

It was also in 2002, according to a report produced by the inspector general, that Wooldridge was given a new duty. After an incident in which Advanced Power Technologies was given access to Griles’ government conference room to pitch a new technology to a group of top Interior officials (Griles himself did not attend the presentation), Wooldridge was assigned to screen Griles’ contacts on all matters in which he was recused.

By February 2004, as the inspector general’s office was nearing completion of its investigation of Griles’ contacts with former lobbying clients, the romantic relationship between Griles and Wooldridge had quietly blossomed, current and former officials say.

The next month, the Office of Government Ethics issued a letter analyzing the facts contained in the inspector general’s draft report about Griles, clearing him of misconduct in a number of matters but concluding that Griles may have committed an ethical violation regarding his involvement in the coal-bed methane project approval sought by several of his former clients.

Wooldridge leapt to his defense. According to the inspector general’s report, Wooldridge contacted the office with a memorandum for the record disputing the Office of Government Ethics analysis. Ultimately, when the inspector general’s report was released in March 2004, it did not accuse Griles of breaking any law but stated that Griles had landed himself in an “ethical quagmire.”

The final report concluded that Griles’ many former clients with business before Interior, combined with the department’s weak ethics oversight, was “a train wreck waiting to happen.”

The report recommended reorganizing and strengthening Interior’s ethics office. Among the recommendations: “Ethics advisers must be willing to say the word ‘NO!’ — even to high-level political appointees.”


It’s not clear when Norton became aware of the relationship between her two subordinates. Norton resigned from the government in March 2006 and is now a corporate lawyer for Royal Dutch Shell Inc. A lawyer for the former interior secretary said she was traveling overseas and could not be reached for comment.

But in 2003, part of her response to criticism of Interior’s weak ethics practices was to consolidate responsibility for ethics advice within the Office of the Solicitor. In January 2004, Bush nominated Wooldridge to be the department’s new solicitor, a position, according to one former Interior official, for which Griles had recommended her.

As part of her confirmation process, in March 2004, Sen. Wyden submitted a written question to Wooldridge noting her involvement in advising Griles on his ethics agreements. Given that her office would now oversee all of Interior’s ethics matters, how would she ensure that all ethics agreements would be enforced? In a 720-word response, Wooldridge discussed a number of changes in Interior’s ethics bureaucracy. But she offered just a single reference to Griles, an acknowledgement that she was “aware” of the inspector general’s recently issued report. In closing, she wrote, “I will take the steps necessary to ensure that ethics agreements and recusals are enforced.”

At Wooldridge’s March 11 confirmation hearing, Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) asked, “Are you aware of any personal holdings, investments, or interests that could constitute a conflict or create the appearance of such a conflict?”

Wooldridge responded: “No, Senator. I have reviewed those with counselors for the department and ethics counselors, and with regard to my investments and interests, I do not believe there are any conflicts of interest.”

Although Wooldridge ascended to the solicitor’s job via a recess appointment, the Senate later confirmed her to the post. As solicitor, Wooldridge took over the supervision of not only Interior’s ethics office but also the department’s roughly 400-lawyer legal team and the mammoth, long-running Indian trust fund case now known as Cobell v. Kempthorne. She also worked frequently with the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which represents Interior in a number of matters.

When Thomas Sansonetti stepped down from heading that DOJ office in April 2005, Wooldridge was selected by Bush for the slot.

In October 2005, as Wooldridge was again up for Senate confirmation for that job — which would make her the country’s top environmental prosecutor — she was asked in a Judiciary Committee questionnaire to identify the categories of litigation and financial arrangements that were likely to present potential conflicts of interest.

The question came at a time when, according to Wooldridge’s lawyers, she had recused herself from involvement in any cases involving Griles. In a standard response to the question — explaining that she would seek the advice of appropriate officials and recuse where necessary — Wooldridge did not mention Griles, nor did she mention that Griles’ lobbying clients that year included the American Petroleum Institute, Consol Energy Inc., and Newmont Mining Corp.

Ann Klee, who as EPA general counsel worked closely with Wooldridge during Wooldridge’s tenure at Justice, says she wasn’t aware that Wooldridge had recused herself from any matters at the DOJ. But Klee, now a partner at Crowell & Moring, says she believes Wooldridge is someone who would do the right thing.

“She is one of the smartest, most effective lawyers that I’ve ever worked with and has more integrity than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says Klee, who also worked with both Griles and Wooldridge at Interior. Asked about Wooldridge’s relationship with Griles, Klee pauses before saying, “I can’t talk about her personal life.”

Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected]. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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