Foxes Guarding the Foxes -Again

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Tuesday called a Department of Interior Inspector General report on the activities of Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles “a disturbing picture of repeated questionable conduct” on the part of a high-ranking public official. In a letter, Lieberman asked Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton to exercise her responsibility to assess Griles actions and take appropriate disciplinary or corrective action. The report, conducted in part at the request of Lieberman in April 2003, reveals not only Griles’ actions on behalf of former clients and business associates but an Interior Department unwilling or unable to police his actions.

“This appears to be yet another case in a long list of Bush Administration examples of the foxes guarding the foxes,” Lieberman said. “The cumulative impact of repeated special access for special interests with pre-existing business connections to Mr. Griles, cannot help but leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who believes in the fairness of government.”

Before taking office, Griles was a consultant for a number of oil and gas companies with high-stake financial interests before the Interior Department. He signed at least three documents agreeing to excuse himself from department business that involved his former clients and the current clients of his former business partner. The Inspector General report, however, shows that: · Griles used his official position to help his former business partner: After assuming office, Griles organized a dinner party for six of the department’s highest-ranking officials at the home of his former business partner, Mark Himmelstein, who still has major business before the department. Griles continues to receive payment from Himmelstein’s firm; Himmelstein is paying him $284,000 a year for four years after buying his share of their consulting firm. After an Interior solicitor raised questions about the appropriateness of this dinner at the home of a lobbyist and former business partner, Griles wrote Himmelstein a check to cover the cost of the dinner. Himmelstein did not cash the check until after the Inspector General’s investigation was underway. The Office of Government Ethics has apparently concluded this incident may have violated ethics rules. “The IG’s report chronicles the remarkable access lobbyists had to the highest ranking department officials,” Lieberman said. “And as this incident shows when Mr. Griles couldn’t bring the lobbyist directly into the building to meet the officials, he’d bring the officials out of the building to meet the lobbyist.”

· Griles sought to influence EPA action on an issue of interest to his former clients and Himmelstein’s current clients: Despite his written agreement to withdraw from action regarding his former clients, Griles wrote a memo to a high-ranking EPA official – and followed up with a phone call – regarding the agency’s comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing coal bed methane production in the Powder River Basin. Griles had previously represented at least five companies with an interest in increasing production in the basin and whose applications for drilling permits were subject to environmental review – the purpose for which an EIS would be drafted. The Office of Government Ethics has apparently concluded Griles may have violated ethics rules with this matter also. “This repeated confluence of interests between Mr. Griles’ former clients and his official actions at Interior cannot help but undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity of the department,” Lieberman said.

· Griles’ staff offered extraordinary assistance to a former Griles client: DOI awarded five contracts, totaling $2 million to a company called Advanced Power Technologies, Inc., to conduct aerial imaging of certain grasslands in order to determine how susceptible they were to fire. Before he entered government, Griles represented the company and facilitated briefings between the company and the Bureau of Land Management, which resulted in the reward of the first contract. After he became deputy secretary, the company received four additional contracts. Although the report does not contain evidence that Mr. Griles personally helped the company once he took office – he was barred from such involvement – those working directly for him clearly did, with the result that the company obtained a clear competitive advantage. In one case, Griles’ top assistant pushed procurement staffers to award a contract to the company. In another, he convened a highly unusual meeting in Griles’ conference room and brought high-level officials in for a pitch from the company. Secretary Norton’s chief of staff told another Griles assistant that the assistant’s efforts on behalf of the company were inappropriate in light of Griles’ recusal from activities concerning the company. The IG’s report identifies numerous procurement irregularities with respect to the awarding of these contracts.

· Other meetings were conducted with former clients or clients of former business: The report describes other meetings between Griles and his former clients and the clients of his former business partner. In his letter to Norton, Lieberman said, “the American people must have confidence that the merits of a matter, not the access of its proponents, are what determine the outcome, especially on issues of such importance as the use and abuse of our natural resources.” “Those who oversee management of vast federal land holdings are in positions of significant public trust,” Lieberman said. “Their decisions about the production or preservation of valuable resources have far-reaching consequences, and so they must be beyond suspicion.” · DOI’s ethics program is broken The Inspector General condemned the department’s ethical culture in documenting “endemic deficiencies that have plagued and continue to plague the department’s office of ethics.” These deficiencies may well have set the conditions that allowed Griles conduct to go unchecked.