Steven Griles, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department during President Bush's first term, pleaded guilty Friday to obstructing a government investigation into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Griles, 59, as a deputy cabinet secretary, is the highest-ranking government official among nine people convicted so far in the Abramoff investigation.
He entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who scheduled a sentencing hearing June 26. Prosecutors are asking for a ten month prison "split" sentence whereby Griles would spend half the time in prison and half in home confinement.
In court, Griles admitted to a single count of obstructing the investigation by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led by Arizona's John McCain, into Abramoff's influence-peddling. In an interview with Senate investigators and during one public hearing in late 2005, Griles lied and withheld information about Abramoff's access to him, according to the criminal information released by the Justice Department.
"When a Senate Committee asks questions, they must be answered fully and completely, and it is not my place to decide whether those questions are relevant or too personal," Griles said in a written statement issued Friday by his attorney following the plea hearing. "I apologize to my family, my friends, the committee, and its staff."
Besides Abramoff, who is serving a 70 month sentence for conspiracy and fraud charges, those convicted in the probe include former Ohio congressman Bob Ney and a top government procurement official, David Safavian.
Griles said in his statement, "I am sorry for my wrongdoing. I fully accept the responsibility for my conduct and the consequences it may have." His main error was understating his ties to Abramoff under oath.
"My relationship with Mr. Abramoff was, as with other lobbyists, nothing more, nothing less," Griles testified Nov. 2, 2005. "I do not recall intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff's clients ever."
However, Griles had been introduced to Abramoff by his then-girlfriend, Italia Federici, who was president of group called Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. The Justice Department calls CREA a "purported tax exempt" organization. Federici co-founded it in 1997 in Colorado with Gale Norton, who became Interior Secretary in 2001.
Griles, a one-time oil industry lobbyist from Virginia with 24 years of government service, raised funds for CREA before he took office as Norton's deputy. CREA's offices in Washington are now nothing more than a defunct UPS mailbox and their website lists no phone number.
Evidence uncovered by investigators showed that Abramoff and four of his Native American tribal clients directed by him donated $500,000 to CREA between 2001 and 2003.
E-mails during the same period and released by the Senate committee show that Abramoff lobbied Griles on issues affecting his clients that were paying him and his firm, Greenberg Traurig, tens of millions of dollars in fees. The Interior Department oversees Indian affairs and the booming $20 billion a year Indian gaming business.
Former Bureau of Indian Affairs director Wayne Smith told CBS News last year that in his view Griles was .
Smith told CBS News that Griles "would set up meetings, and you'd have a meeting with Abramoff and his clients where Steve would profess this was the appropriate way to go."
In one July 2002 e-mail to a Louisiana tribe, Abramoff called Griles "our guy." A September 2002 e-mail Abramoff sent to his lobbying team mentioned having a "great dinner with Griles" about a "legislative fix" to block a rival tribe's quest for land to build a casino in Louisiana.
"Abramoff had a unique relationship with the defendant that distinguished him from other lobbyists and allowed him access to the defendant directly" through Federici, according to the Justice Department's criminal information. "Abramoff occasionally sought and received…Griles's advice and intervention."
Barry Hartman, an attorney for Griles, said in a written statement the only thing that distinguished Abramoff from other lobbyists with interests before Interior was the way he met Griles.
"The action today should put to rest any rumor or innuendo that Mr. Griles took anything from Mr. Abramoff or any other lobbyists, be it a drink, a meal, a sports ticket, or a trip to Scotland. He did not," Hartman said.
"The guilty plea did not come with a promise to cooperate with the ongoing investigation," he said.
One senior administration official told CBS News that Griles was defiant in his negotiations and reserved the right to pull out of the plea up until the last minute.
Griles' conviction comes on the heels of other problems for the Interior Department, which has been accused by Capitol lawmakers for mismanaging billions of dollars in oil, gas, and mining royalties.