Deputy Secretary of Interior J. Steven Griles is under attack for allegedly violating conflict of interest agreements. Host Steve Curwood speaks with reporter Mike Soraghan with the Denver Post’s Washington bureau, who has been following the story.
CURWOOD: J. Steven Griles, the deputy secretary of the Interior, is under investigation by his own department’s inspector general over questions of conflict of interest. Some environmental and government watchdog groups are also asking the attorney general to appoint a special counsel to investigate Mr. Griles.
Steve Griles was a mining regulator in the Reagan Administration before he became a lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industries. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman has led the official criticism of Mr. Griles, alleging that promises made during his confirmation hearings to keep an arm’s length from his former clients have not been kept. For example, Mr. Griles’ datebook shows he met a former client in the gas industry a day before he sent a memo to EPA officials. asking them to speed up the review process on coal-bed methane drilling in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Mike Soraghan is a reporter with The Denver Post’s Washington bureau and has been covering this issue. Mike, why does Mr. Griles have so many critics right now?
SORAGHAN: Basically, they think that he’s tilting the playing field toward industry. And they see that because he used to be an industry lobbyist. And those fears and concerns are confirmed, in his critic’s minds, when they see that he continues to meet with many of his old clients, from the coal, oil, and gas industries.
CURWOOD: Well, people work, have jobs, and then do government service. Are they expected to give up all their friends, all their contacts, with that service?
SORAGHAN: Well, I think one of the key things here is that he has a continuing financial tie. And for $284,000 a year , which is what his old firm is paying him, critics and other would maintain that some additional caution is necessary, and maybe you need to find someone else to go to lunch with.
CURWOOD: Tell me about the money that he is earning from his firm. Why and how is this coming to him?
SORAGHAN: Well, he came to this firm, National Environmental Strategies, and apparently helped them build up their client base. And by the time he left, he had been making more than half a million dollars a year. When he left, his firm agreed to buy out that interest at what they said was book value. They say that book value is 1.1 million dollars. We don’t know exactly why – whether it’s for tax reasons, or just the company can’t take a 1.1 million dollar hit all at once – they’re paying that out over four years. He has agreed to stay away from that firm’s clients for four years, and then, I believe, federal law requires an additional two years after that.
CURWOOD: Has he been meeting with these clients in contradiction of what he said during his confirmation hearings?
SORAGHAN: Yes, he has been meeting with those clients. It’s up to someone else to decide if he’s in contradiction of those pledges. But he has been meeting with clients fairly soon after taking office. He was in a conference call with the head of his old lobbying firm, who is also a close friend, Mark Himmelstein. The folks at the department have explained to me that was just four golfing buddies who were busy, and the only way they could have their friendly conversation was to have a conference call scheduled during the day.
He has met a couple of times with folks from the National Mining Association. That is a former client who has several high profile issues before the government, not the least of which is mountain top removal mining in West Virginia. Mr. Griles was a member of the Clear Skies Task Force, which was the group of high-level administration officials who were charged with coming up with an air pollution strategy for the Bush administration. During that time, he sat in on a meeting with 13 chief executives from another old client, the Edison Electric Institute. And then when you get to the memo, in the Powder River basin – the day before he sent that memo, he had met with Western Gas Resources, which was a former client and one of the companies in the consortium that was paying for the environmental study to get drilling moving there. And then three days later he was at a barbeque at Mr. Himmelstein’s house. He and Mr. Himmelstein and some of the other top Interior Department officials in charge of land, and mining, and oil, and gas—having a cookout at the home of the top lobbyist for the natural gas companies.
CURWOOD: Mike, Mark Pfeifle, who is the press secretary at the Department of the Interior, talked to us about some of these issues. And he said that all of these meetings were cleared by the ethics office of the Department of the Interior. He also points out that Mr. Griles has worked to eliminate some abuses of the resource extraction industry, and that the deputy secretary has been fully accessible to representatives of environmental groups, and that, frankly, these allegations, and what they would say is innuendo, is part of frank partisan politics, is just partisan politics. As, a reporter, Mike, what do you see going on?
SORAGHAN: You know, a lot of the things that you just mentioned are true. He, from what I can tell, did work to eliminate some of the bad practices by bad actors, fly-by-night operators in, especially, the coal industry. I think what you’ll find Mr. Griles’ critics say is that he’s kind of tilting the playing field in favor of the mainstream energy companies, which has its own detrimental effects. Certainly, the people who are Mr. Griles’ critics here—these are people who didn’t like Mr. Griles to begin with. But perhaps he’s given them some fuel on the fire by quite openly meeting with some of his old clients.
CURWOOD: Mike Soraghan is a reporter for The Denver Post Washington bureau. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
SORAGHAN: Thanks for having me.
[MUSIC: Icicle Works “When It All Comes Down” Best of Icicle Works Beggars Imports (1995)]
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