"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Former Justice and Interior Officials Targeted
Seattle Times.com
By John Heilprin
February 15, 2007

WASHINGTON -- A House committee will investigate and request documents on a real estate deal involving the government's top environmental prosecutor and ConocoPhillips' top lobbyist, and legal agreements between the government and the oil company.

The inquiry by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was announced hours after The Associated Press reported that the prosecutor, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, bought a $1 million vacation home on Kiawah Island, S.C., with ConocoPhillips Vice President Donald R. Duncan, nine months before agreeing to let the company delay a half-billion-dollar pollution cleanup. It was one of two proposed consent decrees Wooldridge signed with ConocoPhillips just before resigning last month.

"There appears to be a breakdown of ethics at the Justice Department," the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Wednesday night. "Senior Justice Department officials should not be handling cases that affect their close friends and investment partners."

The third buyer of the beachshore getaway was former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, the highest-ranking Bush administration official targeted for criminal prosecution in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe.

In one of her last acts, Wooldridge signed proposed consent decrees with ConocoPhillips, one delaying the required installation of $525 million in pollution controls at nine refineries and the other dealing with a Superfund toxic waste cleanup.

Last April, Wooldridge, Duncan and Griles bought a $980,000 home in a gated community at Kiawah Island. Records from the Charleston County Auditor's office obtained by the AP list Duncan as a 50 percent owner of the home and Wooldridge and Griles as 25 percent owners.

ConocoPhillips said in a statement Wednesday night that Duncan had no involvement in negotiating the consent agreements.

"We object to the suggestion that the real estate transaction involving Don Duncan, which was cleared in advance by the ethics office of the Department of Justice, had any impact whatsoever on the consent decrees entered into by ConocoPhillips or the recent SEC filing amending ConocoPhillips code of ethics," company officials said. "Any savings resulting from these delays are expected to be offset by the cost of additional and stricter controls agreed to in the amended agreement."

Griles, now an oil and gas lobbyist, began dating Wooldridge while he was her boss at Interior. He was the department's No. 2 official from July 2001 to January 2005, behind only former Secretary Gale Norton. He and Duncan, ConocoPhillips' chief Washington lobbyist, both served on President Bush's presidential transition team.

Wooldridge and Griles have known each other at least since the first year of the Bush administration in 2001, when Wooldridge became deputy chief of staff and counselor to Norton. Bush appointed Wooldridge as Interior's top lawyer in June 2004.

After she became Interior solicitor, Wooldridge told the department's ethics office she and Griles had begun dating, an Interior spokesman said.

Bush later appointed Wooldridge to head the Justice Department's environment division, representing virtually every federal agency, and she began working there in November 2005.

Stephen W. Grafman, Wooldridge's attorney, said she paid for her share in the home and was told by the Justice Department's ethics office a month before the sale went through "that the purchase was not a problem."

"There was no need to recuse herself from ConocoPhillips since she was advised by the appropriate ethics officials that there was not a conflict," Grafman said. "Mr. Duncan invested in the property as an individual and friend."

Grafman said Duncan never lobbied Wooldridge for himself or his company.

Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson confirmed that Wooldridge "sought the advice of ethics officials who informed her that the purchase did not raise ethical issues."

Magnuson said the consent decrees with ConocoPhillips "were approved through the normal management channels and were presented to Sue Ellen with the unanimous recommendations of her career staff as well as those of the EPA."

Griles' lawyer, Barry M. Hartman, called the home a shared investment among people who have known each other for years. "What exactly is wrong with three close personal friends sharing a vacation/rental home?" he said.

Wooldridge submitted her resignation letter from Justice on Jan. 8, three days after other prosecutors in the department met with Griles to outline criminal charges they are seeking against him. She said in the letter she wanted to return to private sector work.

The federal task force heading the Abramoff corruption probe also has become interested in Wooldridge and her connections to Griles, people familiar with the investigation said on condition of anonymity, citing the issue's sensitivity.

Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service and an expert on presidential appointees, said Wooldridge's participation in the home purchase and ConocoPhillips settlements "creates the impression of favoritism, or favors due."

"From an appearance standpoint it's awful, and from a legal standpoint it's questionable," Light said Wednesday. "Political appointees have been indicted for less."

Wooldridge's last day at Justice was Jan. 19. One of the proposed agreements she signed before leaving would change the terms of a major air pollution settlement with ConocoPhillips announced in 2005.

To settle charges of Clean Air Act violations, the new agreement Wooldridge signed would delay deadlines the government imposed -- some by two to three years -- for cutting emissions of chemicals that cause smog and soot. It also postponed by more than a year potential penalties and pollution reporting requirements. The agreement cited damage to a refinery from Hurricane Katrina as reason for some of the delays.

Wooldridge did not list her share in the South Carolina home in a financial disclosure she submitted a month after the real estate deal. That report covered calendar 2005 and Wooldridge resigned before having to submit a new report for 2006.

Wooldridge also put her undated signature on a proposed consent decree involving ConocoPhillips and a Superfund toxic waste site. It is among dozens of company that would pay $500,000 in damages and up to $10 million to clean an 8-acre site in Elkton, Md.

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