Ex-Interior officials spar at hearing


WASHINGTON -- Two former high-level Interior Department officials clashed before a Senate committee yesterday over whether one of them - while in his government post - sought to pressure Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on behalf of controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff's tribal clients.

J. Steven Griles, Interior's former deputy secretary, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that he had no special relationship with Abramoff and gave him no special access, as the lobbyist has claimed in e-mails and at least one interview.

"That is outrageous, and it is not true," Griles said.

But much of Griles' testimony was disputed by the man seated beside him at the witness table, former Interior Department counsel Michael Rosetti.

Griles' efforts to insinuate himself into Norton's decision-making sessions on behalf of an Indian tribe Abramoff represented so worried him, Rosetti told senators, that he confronted the deputy secretary before two other officials and asked, "What was he doing? Whose water was he carrying?"

The public dispute between the two offered a dramatic close to hearings that have explored the complex web of influence, money and access Abramoff wove as one of Washington's most well-connected lobbyists.

Abramoff has been indicted in federal court on six counts of fraud and conspiracy for his role in the 2000 purchase of a fleet of Florida gambling boats. He has pleaded not guilty.

Yesterday's hearing focused on whether Abramoff, when working for the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, relied on Griles to influence the Interior Department to block a rival tribe from opening a casino that would compete with the Coushattas' gaming business.

Rosetti recounted an incident in which, he said, Griles gave him a binder filled with letters and documents critical of the bid by the Jenna Band of Choctaw Tribe to build a casino near the Coushattas' $300-million-a-year casino. Griles, Rosetti said, wanted him to make sure Norton saw the file.

Rosetti said he had to press Griles to learn that the folder had been compiled by Abramoff.

Griles denied that he said the binder came from Abramoff, and said he never knew who had put it on his desk.

He also denied published reports that he was pressuring Interior officials on Abramoff's behalf as he was negotiating with the lobbyist for a job. Griles said he was surprised when Abramoff introduced him to a partner in Greenberg Traurig, the lobbying firm Abramoff worked for, who offered him a job at the end of a brief meeting.

Griles said the offer "raised alarms with me," and he reported the incident to the Interior Department's ethics officer. While in office, Griles had been investigated but was never charged with maintaining close ties to his previous employer, a lobbying firm, and its clients.

A statement issued yesterday by Abramoff's spokesman, Andrew Blum, described the lobbyist as having been put "into the impossible position of not being able to defend himself in the public arena until the proper authorities have had a chance to review all accusations."

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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