All the President's Men

Like the disgraced lobbyist himself, the latest Bush administration official to be fingered in the Abramoff scandal has strong Northwest ties.

 Say this much for Jack Abramoff: Even as a prison inmate, the ex-lobbyist can still bring in billable hours for his former Seattle employer, the law firm previously known as Preston Gates Ellis. Now called K&L Gates, the firm is preparing to defend a former top Bush administration official, Steven Griles, for possibly lying to a Senate committee about his relationship with Abramoff, the firm's erstwhile superlobbyist who has since been convicted of fraud and conspiracy. Griles, once the No. 2 man in the Interior Department and more recently a lobbyist in ex-Washington State Congressman George Nethercutt's firm, has, according to his attorney, been notified by Justice Department officials that he could be indicted as a result of the three-year Lobbygate investigation that grew out of Abramoff's Capitol Hill influence peddling. It's unclear whether Abramoff, who is doing more than five years in prison while cooperating with prosecutors, might have provided details that have led to Griles' potential indictment. But for whatever reason (K&L Gates chose not to comment), Griles has ended up a client of the firm where, under Abramoff, Lobbygate was born.According to his attorney and news reports, Griles faces possible charges for having lied to the Senate Indian Affairs committee in 2005. In 2000, Abramoff was named to George Bush's presidential transition team for the Interior Department, helping select the new Republican leadership team, which came to include Griles, who denies that, as a government official, he improperly assisted Abramoff. (Griles allows that Abramoff offered him a job as a lobbyist.)Griles would be the second Interior official to be indicted pursuant to Lobbygate. The first, Roger G. Stillwell, last year pleaded guilty to accepting gratuities from Abramoff. News of Griles' possible indictment comes just as the Senate passed a lobbying reform bill and a member of Congress was sentenced for accepting bribes from Abramoff.Barry Hartman, Griles' K&L Gates attorney, said in a statement that his client is not guilty of any wrongdoing and did no favors for Abramoff. As a star D.C. lobbyist, Abramoff brought in millions in revenue from 1994 through 2000 at then–Preston Gates Ellis, where the Lobbygate transgressions took root. Besides paying off politicians, Abramoff defrauded millions from Indian tribes he represented while at Preston Gates Ellis and later at a second firm, Miami-based Greenberg Traurig. Senate documents show that in 1999, while still at Preston Gates Ellis, Abramoff hired former Christian Coalition leader and Bush campaign official Ralph Reed as a firm "subcontractor." With the help of Republican anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, they launched a plan to funnel millions of dollars in Indian casino gambling money from Abramoff's clients to Reed's private consulting firm to pay for an anti-gambling effort being run by Reed in the South, which in turn benefited other Abramoff clients. The initial $121,000 in seed money to launch the anti-gambling campaign came directly from Preston Gates funds authorized by the Seattle headquarters, according to the Senate documents. (See "Lobbygate's Gateses," Jan. 18, 2006). The firm said it was unaware of Abramoff's scheme. Two other former Preston Gates Ellis lobbyists, Michael Scanlon and David Safavian (who went on to become Bush's chief of staff at the General Services Administration), have also pleaded guilty to Lobbygate felonies and are presumed to be cooperating with the proper authorities. In e-mails obtained by the Senate committee, Abramoff referred to Griles as "our guy" at the Interior Department. At the time, Abramoff was seeking Griles' help on behalf of his Indian tribal lobbying clients.Preston Gates Ellis became K&L Gates late last year, merging with Pittsburgh-based Kirkpatrick & Lockhart to create one of the top 10 largest national law firms, which also operates a powerful lobbying entity in D.C. Though namesake William Gates II, father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates III, has mostly retired from active duty, it is his hallowed name that was preserved in the merger. Griles was a lobbyist for coal and energy corporations before becoming an Interior official from 2001 through 2004, helping oversee profitable licenses for private companies to mine and drill on federal land. He returned to lobbying in 2005, helping form a new firm, Lundquist Nethercutt Griles, with former Spokane congressman George Nethercutt and White House adviser Andrew Lundquist. (Lundquist may be best remembered for leading the controversial task force of oil and gas executives including Enron's Kenneth Lay that shaped U.S. energy policy behind closed doors in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.) Also known as LNG Associates, the firm lobbies mostly for U.S. technology, petroleum and mining corporations, seeking business opportunities and tax and regulatory breaks. Among Griles' clients, according to Senate records, are Dux Area, a high-tech spray painting firm in Tukwila, seeking environmental backing related to its green technology spray nozzle, and D.B. Meyers & Co. of Redmond, a laser/optic technology company that competes for Defense Department contracts. LNG, which also lobbies for the Colville Indian tribe, earned almost $800,000 in the first half of 2006, lobbying reports show.Nethercutt spent five terms in the House before running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, losing to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. He then turned to lobbying, cashing in on insider connections. "Forty-three percent of all retiring members of Congress spin through the government-industry revolving doors to become lobbyists," says Craig Holman, of the public-interest watchdog group Public Citizen. "Those who are retiring for reasons other than death or conviction, that is." Holman breaks this down as "the regular revolving door, where former members of Congress and the federal government become lobbyists; and the reverse revolving door, where lobbyists become government officials. Steven Griles went both ways." Shortly after he was notified of his possible indictment, Griles quietly left the Nethercutt firm, submitting his resignation Jan. 10. Spokesperson Kjersten Drager confirms that Griles "is no longer affiliated with the firm as of that date." Moreover, LNG is in the process of changing its name and Web site, which boasted of "60 years of combined government service in Washington, D.C." and "long-standing relationships with senior officials in the Bush administration." A number of Republican Capitol Hill staffers and ex–Bush administration officials, along with Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, have been convicted or pleaded guilty as a result of Lobbygate probes. Political observers have cited Abramoff and Lobbygate as one of the keys to the 2006 voter revolt that resulted in the Democrats seizing control of Congress. In fact, Public Citizen's Holman claims that the ethics issue was "even more [important] than [resolving] the Iraq war." To that end, Jan. 18 marked a memorable step forward, with the U.S. Senate voting 96-2 for ethics and lobbying reform legislation that now goes to the House for almost certain approval. The measure bans lobbyists' gifts to legislators and their staffs, particularly travel freebies like Abramoff used to dole out. And as frosting on that cake, ex-congressman Ney was sentenced Friday to 30 months in federal prison for accepting gifts from the disgraced Abramoff.randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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