USA: Interior Department Investigates Official's Role as Oil Lobbyist

WASHINGTON -- Responding to a request from Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut and a candidate for president, the inspector general of the Interior Department is investigating possible conflicts of interest involving a top Interior official who used to be a lobbyist for the oil, gas and mining interests he now regulates.

Mr. Lieberman, citing news accounts, said the official, J. Steven Griles, deputy secretary of the interior, had ''met with oil and gas industry officials whom he once represented and who have financial stakes in department decisions.''

David Montoya, assistant inspector general with the Office of Inspector General, confirmed that his office was investigating the Interior Department's enforcement of Mr. Griles's recusal agreements, as Mr. Lieberman raised in a letter on April 7 to his office.

In that letter, Mr. Lieberman wrote that the news accounts of Mr. Griles's activities ''raise numerous questions about Mr. Griles's compliance with agreements he signed to recuse himself from department issues involving his previous clients.'' As a condition of his confirmation by the Senate, Mr. Griles signed two letters saying that for six years he would refrain from participating in matters involving his former clients.

On behalf of Mr. Griles, Eric Ruff, a spokesman for the Interior Department, said Mr. Lieberman's request for an investigation was politically motivated.

''Given the nature of the partisan season we're about to enter, we're not at all surprised to receive a letter like this,'' Mr. Ruff said, adding that he expected the inspector general's review to be ''thorough and professional.''

Mr. Montoya said that he did not know how long the investigation would take but that he hoped to proceed quickly. ''It is as important to prove something as to disprove it, so we're moving quickly,'' he said. ''It won't be a matter of months.''

Mr. Lieberman's request was based on articles by several news organizations, including The Washington Post and The Associated Press, over the last year that suggested that Mr. Griles had extensive contact with his former clients.

For example, The A.P., using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Mr. Griles's appointment calendars, reported last month that while Mr. Griles's nomination was pending before the Senate in 2001, Chevron was paying his firm $80,000 to lobby the Interior Department. Two months after his confirmation, Mr. Griles began meeting with other department officials to discuss Chevron's proposed projects. The A.P. said those meetings ended with the Bush administration's paying Chevron $46 million to abandon plans for oil wells off the Florida coast, a decision that enhanced the re-election prospects of President Bush's brother Jeb as governor of Florida.

Mr. Griles told The A.P. that he had not personally done any lobbying for Chevron even though he was registered as lobbying the Interior Department on ''oil and gas exploration and production issues'' on its behalf.

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics
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