A former Interior Department official linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced Tuesday in federal court to two years probation and a fine of $1000. The official, Roger Stillwell, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of filing a false financial statement with the department.
Magistrate Judge Alan Kay disregarded a recommendation by both the Department of Justice and Stillwell's attorney for a lesser sentence of six months probation.
Judge Kay said that Stillwell's actions amounted to a "serious violation considering his position" and his years of government service. Kay admonished Stillwell saying there is "no such thing as a free lunch, particularly as provided by lobbyists."
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 investigation into the influence peddling scandal involving the convicted lobbyist. Prosecutors acknowledged in court that there is still an ongoing investigation involving Abramoff and his contacts with the Department of Interior.
Stillwell, a former 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 - all paid for by Abramoff - which Stillwell did not report.
He addressed the court saying that he took full responsibility for his failure to report the gifts Abramoff provided. Stillwell said that it was "never my intention to violate the law." And, he said the, "consequences of my actions have devastated my professional career."
Court papers indicate, "Stillwell well knew, the document falsely certified that he did not receive reportable gifts from a prohibited source."
Stillwell is 67 years old and is now a retired Interior Department employee.
Northern Marianas connection
Abramoff's team allegedly cultivated Stillwell at the Interior Department. Prosecutors said Stillwell provided Abramoff with some non-public information but the materials were "not classified" and the documents were not a quid pro quo for the gifts Abramoff provided.
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 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.
'In awe' of Abramoff
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. Rudy has yet to be sentenced.
Stillwell 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."
To date, the investigation has yielded guilty pleas from six defendants, including Abramoff and public officials such as former congressman Bob Ney, and his former chief of staff Neil Volz, former DeLay aide Tony Rudy, and Stillwell.
The investigation has also resulted in the conviction by jury trial of the former chief of staff for the General Services Administration David Safavian who is awaiting sentencing pending appeal of his conviction.
In November, Abramoff began serving a 70-month prison sentence for pleaded guilty to defrauding banks of $23 million in his purchase of the SunCruz casino cruise line six years ago in Florida. Abramoff pleaded guilty in Washington to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He is awaiting sentencing in the influence peddling case and is continuing his cooperation with government investigators.
Just before his surrender to a federal prison in Cumberland, MD in November, Abramoff sent friends an e-mail calling the political scandal, "this nightmare," and predicting things were about to get worse.
"This nightmare has gone on for almost three years so far and I expect we are not even half way through," Abramoff wrote.
Former congressman Bob Ney is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. The Justice Department has recommended 27 months of imprisonment.
Joel Seidman is an NBC producer, based in Washington, DC.