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Interior's Deputy Cleared of Most Ethics Charges

J. Steven Griles, a former lobbyist, was accused of violating rules regarding former clients.

March 17, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, a former lobbyist accused of violating rules governing relations between public officials and their former clients, was exonerated on virtually all charges Tuesday by the federal Office of Government Ethics.

The ethics office based its determinations on an exhaustive report by the Interior Department's own inspector general.

"This closes the issue," Interior Secretary Gale M. Norton said. "I am glad that we can now put these allegations behind us."

On two issues, however, the ethics office reached no conclusion. It found that in the first year of the Bush administration, Griles arranged a dinner party with the new top brass of the department at the home of his former business partner, a lobbyist whose clients had many issues before the department.

He also wrote a letter and called the deputy Environmental Protection Agency administrator to urge her to delay release of the EPA's critique of an Interior agency's plan to develop coal-bed methane in Wyoming.

Griles did so even though he had recused himself from participating in matters affecting former clients, at least three of whom were involved in the methane development in Wyoming.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), in a letter to Norton on Tuesday, said that far from exonerating Griles, the report by the inspector general "paints a highly disturbing picture of repeated questionable conduct by the department's second-highest officer."

"The cumulative impact of repeated special access for special interests with preexisting business connections to Mr. Griles cannot help but leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who believes in the fairness of government," Lieberman wrote.

Since Griles joined the Interior Department in 2001, administration critics and newspaper reports have repeatedly raised accusations that, as a former lobbyist, he was breaking ethics rules by working on behalf of former clients after he took his job as the agency's No. 2 official.

After two years of scrutiny by government ethics watchdogs, Griles said, "I am glad this matter is behind me."

In the coal-bed methane case, Griles was concerned that a negative EPA review of the Bureau of Land Management's plan might impede gas development, a priority of the administration and some of his former clients.

Linda Fisher, then deputy EPA administrator, told investigators that Griles had told her he had previously represented oil and gas clients and that he believed that coal-bed methane was an important energy source.

She told him that "since he used to represent clients that were now interested in doing work in this area, perhaps he should not be involved in this matter," the report states.

But Griles said that it was all right for him to be involved because it was an issue of policy, not a specific matter involving only his former clients.

Later, after a newspaper report raised questions about his involvement, Griles told Fisher that she had been right -- "that is, his ethics attorneys all agreed that he should not have been involved," the report says.

In a letter released Tuesday, the Office of Government Ethics noted that "we would have advised Mr. Griles not to contact EPA" on the issue because the coal-bed methane development plan "was developed under circumstances clearly involving ... at least three" former clients.

On the issue of the dinner party, Griles invited several high-ranking department officials to the home of his former partner, Marc Himmelstein, on April 15, 2002.

One of the guests was Rebecca Watson, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

Watson told investigators she was "uncomfortable about attending a dinner party at Himmelstein's house and that she believed it was improper for Mr. Griles to have had the event at this location," the report says.

But in commenting on that case Tuesday, Norton said Griles had acknowledged months ago that "he should have used better judgment." She emphasized that he had taken steps to improve his ethics screening.

Even some cases in which Griles was explicitly found not to have broken laws have raised questions. There were accusations of impropriety about his participation in government business involving the merger between Chevron and Texaco, because his former company, National Environmental Strategies, had represented Chevron.

National said Griles was not the firm's representative for Chevron, and Griles said his company's lobbying disclosures incorrectly listed him as such. Himmelstein said he had no idea why the first six checks written by Chevron to National said, "Attention: Steve Griles."

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