Interior Deputy Secretary's Conduct Questioned

By J.R. Pegg

June 3, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental and government ethics organizations today asked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to launch a criminal investigation into the conduct of the Bush administration's second in command at the Interior Department, Steven Griles.

The organizations say Griles, Interior Department Deputy Secretary and a former lobbyist for mining and oil industries, has failed to abide by recusal agreements and has played a key role in several decisions that have directly benefited his former employer and clients.

They contend Griles has not been forthcoming about the nature of the $284,000 he is receiving annually as part of a four year, $1.1 million deal with his former employer National Environmental Strategies (NES), a firm that lobbies on behalf of oil, gas and coal interests.

In addition, the organizations want to know if Griles made false statements to Congress about the NES deal during his confirmation hearing.

Griles denies these allegations - and Interior Department Press Secretary Mark Pfeifle told the Environment News Service that "these are baseless charges from partisan special interest groups."

Pfeifle says the NES agreement was fully reviewed and approved by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and that Griles has "diligently complied with his recusal obligations."

In their letter to Ashcroft, the groups request the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate these possible violations of criminal and civil conflict of interest laws, citing the need for a nonpartisan, grand jury investigation.

"The public deserves a government of public officials who act solely for the common good," the organizations wrote in their request. "The exact nature of Mr. Griles' relationship to his former employer and Mr. Griles' activities as Deputy Secretary remains cloaked in secrecy." Griles

Environmentalists are challenging the ethics of Interior Department Deputy Secretary Steve Griles, a former lobbyist who represented oil, gas and mining interests. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Government)
Speaking at a press briefing today in Washington, Whitney North Seymour, Jr. - a former Independent Counsel and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York - said that an independent, grand jury investigation is "the only way the public can trust the outcome of an inquiry into the conduct of Griles."

"The energy industry's huge political contributions, combined with the direct payments to Mr. Griles, make such an investigation imperative," said Seymour, a Republican and a board member of Public Campaign.

The letter to Ashcroft was sent by Defenders of Wildlife, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Public Campaign, Sierra Club and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

Concern about the money Griles is receiving from NES prompted environmentalists - Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth and the Endangered Species Coalition - to file a lawsuit today in federal court to force the Bush administration to hand over information about the payments.

Griles has indicated that the payments are from the sale of his client list to NES, but critics are skeptical.

"We do not know what is in this agreement between Griles and NES," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "That is what we want to know. We want to make sure that what Griles sold to members of the oil and gas and mining industries was not his future services as Deputy Secretary of the Interior."

Freedom of Information Act requests for information to answer this question have been stonewalled by the administration, Schlickeisen said, forcing the organizations to seek the help of the courts.

"At a minimum, it seems apparent that there is much of which to be suspicious with regard to Mr. Griles," Schlickeisen said. "Because the Bush administration knows this, one would think if there is nothing there to hide, they would simply obey the law and give us the documents to which we are legally entitled."

Pfeifle responded that the administration has provided enough information to "choke a horse."

"They are on a desperate fishing expedition and they do not have any bait," the Interior Department spokesman said.

How effective either of today's announcements will be is far from certain - although the Interior Department would be bound by a court decision to turn over documents, the Attorney General has no obligation to even comment on the request for a Special Counsel.

But there is increasing interest in the conduct of Griles, a former Reagan administration official with long and close ties to many of the industries keen to develop natural resources on the federal lands under the control of the Interior Department. As Deputy Secretary, Griles is responsible for the day to day operations of the Interior Department and has far reaching influence over its actions. BushandNorton

President George W. Bush and his Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton have been criticized by many for favoring industry over the environment. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy the White House)
Some 507 million acres of surface land, about one fifth of the land in the United States, is administered by the Interior Department, which also oversees 300 million acres of subsurface mineral resources. These public lands contain an array of the nation's wildlife and wild places in addition to a wealth of resources sought by oil, gas and mining industries.

Critics believe the Bush administration has tipped the scales too far in favor of industry desires and is undermining environmental protections at industry request.

"The Bush administration has a pattern of doing business behind closed doors to the benefit of private industry and the expense of the American public," said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to remember that the Interior Department is managing public resources."

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and declared Presidential candidate, asked the Interior Department's Inspector General in April ... for a broad examination of the department's enforcement of ethics agreement designed to assure impartiality and avoid conflicts of interest. to highlighted the high number of Bush administration officials within the department who previously worked for oil, gas and logging interests, and in particular cited concerns about Griles.

Reports that Griles attended Interior Department meetings at which the business of interest to former clients was discussed "raise numerous, troubling questions about whether the deputy secretary has successfully avoided conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts," Lieberman wrote in April.

According to Kristen Sykes, Interior Department watchdog for Friends of the Earth, there is ample evidence that Griles has not successfully avoided conflicts of interest.

"Griles took an oath to serve the American people," Sykes said, "but his actions demonstrate he is really working for the oil, gas and mining industries."

Sykes says Griles has violated recusal agreements by working directly on several projects that involve former clients, including a coal bed methane project in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, offshore gas leases, and mountaintop removal coal mining.

In addition, Griles has been involved with the President's Clear Skies initiative and its reform of the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program, even though former clients would benefit from the administration's air pollution policy.

Administration officials say that as the second in command at Interior and given his work in the private sector, it should be expected that Griles will come into contact with past clients. They stress that the Interior Deputy Secretary is in compliance with ethics rules and that critics are simply upset with policies they do not support.

"The environmental industry is using a double standard," Pfeifle added, as environmentalists who have served in prior administrations never recused themselves from issues they had worked on when employed by environmental groups.

But the groups urging an investigation of Griles say this particular fight is about conflict of interest and abuse of power.

"Actions we are taking today are designed to compel a lifting of the veil of secrecy imposed by this administration, a veil that denies the public the information it needs to evaluate the management of the Department of Interior at its highest levels," Schlickeisen said. "In more than three decades in Washington, I have rarely seen a government official with so many conflicts of interest."