Jack Abramoff had a problem. It was September 2003, and a film crew was shooting "National Treasure" at the Navy Memorial, located next to what was then Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures.
The crew's trailers and equipment were lined up near the building, and Abramoff, at his zenith as a big-time lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig, was concerned that they were blocking his valet parking area. This could be bad for business, but the crew, which had a permit from the National Park Service, refused to budge.
So Abramoff called J. Steven Griles, and within hours the deputy secretary for the Department of the Interior had the park service tell the film crew to move. "I have already chatted with Griles and am all over their asses," Abramoff e-mailed a colleague that night.
It wasn't the only time Abramoff asked Griles for help, prosecutors say, which is why they are pushing for prison time when Huvelle sentences Griles on Tuesday.
Griles, 59, pleaded guilty in March to lying to the Senate about his ties to Abramoff, who is now serving time in a federal prison in Maryland for his illegal lobbying activities. Under the sentencing guidelines, Griles faces 10 to 16 months in prison, but the Justice Department is asking for the lower end of the range, with the time split between prison and home confinement. That isn't low enough for Griles. His lawyers are asking for probation, three months' home confinement, 500 hours of community service and a fine.
The restaurant incident is among several instances of influence-peddling between Abramoff and Griles detailed by prosecutors in recent court filings. The examples, prosecutors claim, show that Griles' lie was not a simple slip. His relationship with Abramoff spanned several years. Not only did Griles try to help Abramoff's clients win favorable decisions from the Interior Department, but he also turned to Abramoff for legal services and what he hoped would be a lucrative job offer once he left the government. "Griles was not shy about asking Abramoff for return favors for the benefit of others close to him," prosecutors wrote.
But when Griles was called in 2005 before a Senate panel investigating Abramoff's lobbying activities, he testified that although Abramoff "apparently has claimed to have special access to my office on behalf of his Indian gaming clients, that is outrageous, and it is not true."
According to prosecutors, this claim, which was the basis for his guilty plea, hampered Senate investigators, who wrote in their final September 2006 report on the Abramoff lobbying scandal that they "cannot definitively conclude what, if anything, Griles did to assist Abramoff's clients on matters then pending at the Interior."
Griles' attorneys, Barry Hartman and Brian Stolarz of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, contend that their client's "life should not be measured by his one truly aberrational act that related to the unfortunate intersection between one's personal life and public service but by his otherwise distinguished and proud history and character."
Indeed, prosecutors admit that they have "uncovered no evidence that defendant Griles personally accepted any money or gifts from Abramoff" -- action that would have led to more criminal liability.
But the examples of access and aid that Abramoff and his clients received from Griles detailed in the government's filing show the limitations of prosecuting public corruption cases and illustrate how such favors remain perfectly legal inside the Beltway.
"There is a lot of stuff that goes on in Washington that is sleazy and looks bad that doesn't rise to the level of a crime," says Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at American University.
Abramoff and Griles met over breakfast at the Hay-Adams hotel in March 2001, just a week before Griles' Senate confirmation hearing for Interior's No. 2 slot -- a position requiring oversight of the country's natural resources, parks and forests, as well as American Indian communities. Their connection was Italia Federici, Griles' on-and-off girlfriend, whom he'd helped move to Washington, D.C., from Colorado. (Federici has now pleaded guilty in connection with the probe.)
From the start, their relationship was all business. After the breakfast, Griles asked Abramoff to raise $100,000 in funds for Federici's nonprofit advocacy group, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. Abramoff agreed, giving $500,000 -- both personally and through his clients -- over the next two years. Prosecutors say he "did so in an effort to maintain his access to defendant Griles."
Abramoff also had some ideas, and he sent Griles a note with names of people he recommended to fill senior department positions. E-mails show that one was Mark Zachares, a staffer for Rep. Donald Young, R-Alaska. Zachares was never tapped for a post and eventually pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal.
Over the next few years, Griles played an integral role in helping Abramoff gain access to other high-level Interior officials. During a September 2001 fund-raising dinner for CREA, Griles made sure that Abramoff and his tribal clients were on the list. "Even the seating chart -- which placed the DOI secretary and the DOI solicitor at the same table as Abramoff and one of his clients -- was cleared through Griles' office," prosecutors wrote.
It paid off. During the dinner, the legal counsel of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana spoke with Griles about the department's refusal to release $1.3 million in funds earmarked for a settlement between the federal government and the tribe over a land dispute.
Shortly afterward, Abramoff sent Griles a white paper advocating this position. Griles passed it on to the deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with a handwritten note: "Please provide me a report on why the distribution of the $1.3 million to the tribe has not occurred?" But Griles seemed to hide his relationship with Abramoff, too, writing that the white paper had come from the tribe -- not Abramoff.
Abramoff also asked Griles for another favor: his help in "ensuring that the President does NOT endorse anyone in the race" for governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands -- particularly the "liberal ¿Republican' " candidate. Griles followed through with this promise and sent a letter to the White House with an almost verbatim request. And Griles made sure Abramoff knew he followed through. He sent Abramoff a blind copy of this letter, prosecutors wrote. In the end, Abramoff got his wish: no administration endorsement.
Griles continued to give Abramoff, through Federici, extraordinary access and help on a number of other client matters. When Abramoff's clients opposed the opening of two casinos by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians and the Gun Lake Tribe of Michigan, Griles tried to block the casinos. He also aided the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe in its bid for an education subsidy.
At times, Griles asked for favors of his own. In early 2003, for instance, Griles and a friend wanted to create an education trust fund to benefit children of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking for legal support, Griles turned to Abramoff, who agreed to set them up with an attorney and even offered to help with funding. But soon after, banking company MBNA announced a similar project, and the three decided to call off their endeavor.
Griles also pushed résumés to Abramoff of potential hires at Greenberg Traurig, including those of a former Senate staffer and another friend who was a private lawyer in West Virginia. And he followed up to ensure his friends got attention.
Meanwhile, Griles was negotiating to get a job for himself at Abramoff's firm. After a September 2003 lunch with Abramoff, Griles asked Abramoff for a list of clients so that he could recuse himself from decisions at the department in the meantime. "I expect he will be with us in 90-120 days," Abramoff wrote his lobbying team after the lunch.
The process took a bit longer -- too long, in fact. The deal had not yet been sealed by the time the first press report of possible improper lobbying by Abramoff surfaced in spring 2004. After that, the two ceased contact.