An Interior Department official linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and charged with filing a false financial disclosure report pleaded guilty today in federal court. The official, Roger Stillwell, pleaded to a single misdemeanor count of false certification.
The charges against Stillwell are the first connected to the Abramoff scandal to touch the Interior Department. The charges also mark an expansion of the government's ongoing investigation into the influence peddling scandal involving the convicted lobbyist.
Stillwell, a desk officer for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas - a lucrative Abramoff client - acknowledged receiving four tickets to a Redskins football game and two tickets to a Simon and Garfunkle concert in Washington from Abramoff, which he did not report.
The court papers indicate, "Stillwell well knew, the document falsely certified that he did not receive reportable gifts from a prohibited source."
Stillwell faces a maximum sentence of one-year in jail and a $100-thousand fine. Prosecutors indicated in court they would not seek the maximum penalties for Stillwell, who is 66 years old and now a retired Interior Department employee.
Abramoff's team allegedly cultivated Stillwell at the Interior Department. But is it not known whether Stillwell provided Abramoff any non-public information.
But, in a report released in July, the Department of Justice's Inspector General - Glenn Fine referred one matter to the FBI and his counterpart at the Interior Department for further investigation: the possibility that an Interior Department official leaked to Abramoff a post-9/11 security review of the Northern Marianas that recommended extending federal immigration laws to the islands. There is no indication in the DOJ report that Stillwell is connected to the continuing investigation at the Department of Interior.
The Interior Department's inspector general office also announced last year that it was investigating any contacts Abramoff may have had with officials there, but has yet to issue a report on its probe.
Abramoff made extensive efforts to build relationships with Interior officials, particularly J. Stephen Griles, former deputy secretary at the department. Griles denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with Abramoff during an appearance before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last year. Griles is now a partner in the lobbying firm Lundquist, Nethercutt & Griles.
Abramoff also tried to place his allies in key positions at Interior, according to e-mails released by the Indian Affairs Committee, focusing on the Bureau of Insular Affairs.
Stillwell has told the Post that all those actions occurred while he was a contract employee at Interior, not a federal worker. He also said he sent Abramoff copies of e-mails he sent to his boss, but he noted that none of them contained confidential information.
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was important to Abramoff who was hired to lobby Congress to keep open an important trade exemption. That exemption allowed garment makers there to put "Made in the U.S.A." labels in their clothing. Human rights groups argue this has fostered an exploitive working environment in the commonwealth's booming garment industry.
A former aide to Tom DeLay pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges involving the Marianas. While working in the Delay's leadership office, Tony Rudy helped Abramoff with one of his Marianas clients. According to an internal audit by Commonwealth authorities, the Marianas paid Abramoff more than $7 million in lobbying fees from 1996 to 2001. Rudy's plea agreement did not implicate DeLay in any illegal activities.
Stillwell also told Mother Jones magazine last year that he was "in awe" of Abramoff's ability to kill a House bill back in 2000 that would have imposed federal immigration policy on the CNMI, one of his most lucrative of his lobbying clients. Abramoff "stopped it dead," said Stillwell. "It could not have been an easy job."
So far five people--Abramoff and former associates Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy, Neil Volz and Adam Kidan--have pleaded guilty. In June, David Safavian, the former top procurement officer at the Office of Management and Budget, was found guilty on four charges of making false statements and obstructing justice stemming from his dealings with Abramoff.
Stillwell is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Joel Seidman is an NBC News producer based in Washington, DC.