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Prison for former Interior official

June 27, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A federal judge chastised the Interior Department's former No. 2 official Tuesday and doubled his proposed prison term to 10 months for lying to senators in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and making excuses about it in court.

J. Steven Griles, 59, was the department's deputy secretary and is the highest administration official sentenced in the probe. He pleaded guilty to obstructing a congressional investigation, but on Tuesday his lawyers tried to deflect blame for his faulty testimony.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle was not pleased. "Even now you continue to minimize and try to excuse your conduct," she told Griles before doubling the 5-month prison term he and prosecutors had agreed on.

Griles admitted to lying to Senate investigators about his relationship with Abramoff, the central figure in a corruption investigation that has led to convictions of a former congressman, legislative aides, lobbyists and officials in the Bush administration.

Second in rank only to then-Secretary Gale A. Norton, Griles effectively was Interior's chief operating officer from 2001 to 2005 and its top representative on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.

Under his plea deal, the Justice Department recommended he serve five months in prison and five months in a halfway house or under house arrest.

However, Huvelle seemed frustrated as Griles and his attorneys appeared to dodge questions about what exactly Griles lied about and why. Attorney Barry M. Hartman said the Justice Department was trying to link Griles to "the stench of Jack Abramoff" and said that, if lawmakers had only provided Griles with documents showing the extent of his relationship with Abramoff, his testimony would have been accurate.

"Do you really believe that?" Huvelle said. "You think it's the Senate's fault?"

With family and supporters holding hands in the front row of the packed courtroom, Griles choked up and wept as he asked for leniency. He apologized for not disclosing that his girlfriend, Italia Federici, had introduced him to Abramoff, giving the lobbyist greater credibility. "It was not my place to decide what was relevant and what was inappropriate," Griles said.

Huvelle pointedly told Griles that the Senate didn't care about how he met Abramoff. The lie wasn't about an introduction, she said. The lie was about repeated contact with Abramoff, about contributions the lobbyist made to Federici's nonprofit group and about how much access Griles gave him, Huvelle said. "You consistently mischaracterized the nature and extent of your dealings with Mr. Abramoff," Huvelle said.

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