Senators grilled Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s former deputy Wednesday about his alleged ties to embattled tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but they also said there’s no evidence that Norton has done anything wrong.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is focusing on two Norton associates _ former deputy interior secretary J. Steven Griles and Italia Federici of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy _ as it tries to close a yearlong investigation.
The committee, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is investigating how Abramoff and partner Michael Scanlon got more than $80 million from six Indian tribes with gambling interests.
Tribal leaders believe the pair preyed on tribes’ insecurities by exaggerating potential political threats to their lucrative casino operations and the lobbying efforts that supposedly justified the big-money payments.
McCain said the committee is troubled by e-mail records suggesting that Federici, who has known Norton since her failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996, helped arrange meetings for Abramoff with Griles and other top Interior officials at a time when the department was considering decisions affecting the lobbyist’s clients.
At Abramoff’s direction, tribes reportedly contributed at least $250,000 to Federici’s group.
Federici has spoken with committee investigators and had been expected to testify Wednesday. Instead there was an empty place at the witness table. McCain said marshals were unable to locate her to deliver a subpoena. In a letter last month, Federici offered to testify Oct. 26 but said she was unavailable Wednesday because it was the anniversary of her father’s death.
Although the committee had planned to wrap up its investigation Wednesday, it will deliver a new subpoena and hold a special hearing focusing only on Federici, McCain said.
McCain stressed that there was “no evidence to suggest that Secretary Norton knew of, much less sanctioned, Mr. Abramoff or anyone else using her name in seeking fees and donations from Native Americans.”
Still, he said the committee is troubled by e-mail records showing Abramoff bragging about close ties to Griles, who was Norton’s second in command until early this year.
In one e-mail, dated Sept. 9, 2003, Abramoff told associates he had just met with Griles and that, “He’s ready to leave Interior and most likely will be coming to join us.”
Testifying Wednesday, Griles acknowledged having an informal meeting with Abramoff and an associate from his lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Griles said he told the men, “I’m not leaving the federal government. I’ve made no plans of leaving the federal government.” He said he informed ethics officials at the department as a precaution.
The claim in the e-mail “simply isn’t true,” Griles said.
Griles repeatedly denied charges that he made special efforts to intervene on behalf of Abramoff’s client, the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, which was trying to convince Interior officials to block approval for a competing casino.
That put his testimony in direct conflict with former Interior legal counsel Michael Rosetti, who also testified Wednesday. Rosetti said Griles repeatedly tried to get involved and once forwarded a binder of materials prepared by the lobbyists to other decision-makers.
Rosetti said he was watching Griles closely, wondering, “Whose water was he carrying on this issue?”
While separate investigations by the Senate committee and Department of Justice continue, tribes are left trying to recover from the financial fall-out.
Kevin Sickey, chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, said the lobbyists’ preyed on the tribe’s insecurities about its $300 million per year casino to get $36 million for unnecessary or exaggerated lobbying efforts.
“They exaggerated political threats and they exaggerated economic threats,” Sickey said. “Then, they exaggerated their ability to deal with these exaggerated threats.”
It left deep resentment and a trail of debts, Sickey said.
“Our Tribe and others were victimized when we attempted to fit into the American political system and we were led to believe that Mr. Abramoff was the gatekeeper,” he said.
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at https://www.rockymountainnews.com.)