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New West Network: Ethics Story Thickens Over Abramoff-Interior Relationships (*Shell General Counsel Gale Norton implicated in corrupton)

In yet another twist in the murky relationship between convicted Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the U.S. Interior Department, it is now being reported that alleged ethical violations may extend into the U.S. Justice Department – the very cabinet branch charged with preventing and prosecuting corruption in government.

In a story in Thursday’s Washington Post, another Administration political appointee, with romantic ties to former deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, has also resigned amid new revelations.

Spurred on by House oversight hearings, investigations now are underway into the conduct of Sue Ellen Wooldridge, who was intially put in charge of investigating Mr. Griles’ alleged ethical abuses while not disclosing that she had been Mr. Griles girlfriend.

Griles served as a hand-picked deputy to former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and specialized in energy-related natural resource issues for the Bush Administration.  Before joining Interior, he previously worked as an energy industry lobbyist.  Norton recently took a job as a senior legal counsel for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

After the story in Post appeared this week, the web site Bush Greenwatch, operated by the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, had this to say:  “Last fall, Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney testified before Congress that ‘simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.’ New revelations about the relationship between two high-ranking administration officials add new meaning to Devaney’s charge.”

It would seem to appear the professional (and sometimes personal) relationships between Norton, Wooldridge, Griles and Abramoff were all entangled by a thin layer of separation, though no one, except for Abramoff, has yet been charged with any crime.  Wooldridge’s failure to disclose her ties to Griles has been the subject of several reports from Legal Times staffer Jason McLure.

“According to the Legal Times, while serving as deputy chief of staff to Secretary Gale Norton, Wooldridge was tasked with screening Griles’ compliance with his recusal agreements [in response to an ethics investigation over his continued ties to his former lobbying aquaintances].  She [Wooldridge] subsequently oversaw the operation of the department’s ethics office – which was monitoring Griles’ conduct – while serving as solicitor, the department’s top lawyer. At one point she [Wooldridge] even weighed in on his behalf, writing a letter that disputed a draft Inspector General report that concluded Griles may have committed an ethical violation.”

At no time during the Inspector General’s 18-month investigation into Griles, Bush Greenwatch writes, “did Wooldridge disclose her relationship with him, which, according to the Legal Times, dated at least to February of 2004. Nor did she disclose the relationship during her Senate confirmation hearing for the Interior solicitor job, or mention it when questioned about potential conflicts of interest during her later Justice Department confirmation hearing.”

While this information in itself seems compelling, the drama, it turns out, thickens even more:

In the front page story in the Post that ran Thursday, reporters Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi write:

“A senior Justice Department official who recently resigned her post bought a nearly $1 million vacation home with a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips months before approving consent decrees that would give the oil company more time to pay millions of dollars in fines and meet pollution-cleanup rules at some of its refineries

“Sue Ellen Wooldridge, former assistant attorney general in charge of environment and natural resources, bought a $980,000 home on Kiawah Island, S.C., last March with ConocoPhillips lobbyist Don R. Duncan. A third owner of the house is J. Steven Griles, a former deputy interior secretary, who has been informed he is a target in the federal investigation of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying activities.”

In another insightful story written by the Legal Times’ Jason McLure, the reporter notes, based upon recently filed disclosure forms, that Mr. Griles lavished Wooldridge with expensive gifts, including jewelry and a trip to Paris.  How blurry did Wooldridge and Griles make the lines of conflict of interest? 

McLure writes:  “Stephen Grafman, a lawyer for Wooldridge, says she was not aware until late last year that gifts ‘given in the context of a personal relationship were reportable events.’ Barry Hartman, a lawyer for Griles, says the gift rules are ‘complicated and convoluted’ and says Griles amended his disclosure forms as soon as he learned the gifts should have been reported.”

Abramoff’s relationship with Griles and, in turn, Griles’ relationship with Norton, Wooldridge, and others, are the subject of ongoing public scrutiny being applied by the House Natural Resoures Committee, now controlled by Democrats.  Among the witnesses being called to testify are Interior Department Inspector General Devaney.

February 16, 2007

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