Nine months before agreeing to let ConocoPhillips delay a half-billion-dollar pollution cleanup, the government's top environmental prosecutor bought a $1 million vacation home with the company's top lobbyist.
Also in on the Kiawah Island, S.C., house deal was former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, the highest-ranking Bush administration official targeted for criminal prosecution in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe.
Just before resigning last month, Assistant Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge signed two proposed consent decrees with ConocoPhillips: one giving the company as much as two to three more years to install $525 million in pollution controls at nine refineries and the other dealing with a Superfund toxic waste cleanup.
Last April, Wooldridge, ConocoPhillips Vice President Donald R. Duncan and Griles had gone together on a $980,000 home in a gated community at Kiawah Island. Records from the Charleston County Auditor's office obtained by The Associated Press list Duncan as a 50 percent owner of the home and Wooldridge and Griles as 25 percent owners.
The deed is filed under Duncan's name, but the mailing address for the South Carolina property — tucked among pines, palmettos, a pool, golf course and racket club several hundred yards from the beach — is Griles' home in Virginia. He and Wooldridge jointly own a condo there.
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, a ConocoPhillips vice president who runs the company's Washington office, both served on President Bush's presidential transition team, Griles for the Interior Department, Duncan for the Energy Department.
Duncan has played a major role in getting the Bush administration's backing for a proposed $25 billion natural gas pipeline reaching from Alaska to Midwest markets.
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 then-Secretary Norton. Bush used a recess appointment to make Wooldridge the department's solicitor — its top lawyer — in June 2004.
After she became solicitor, Wooldridge told the department's ethics office she and Griles had begun dating, an Interior spokesman said.
From 2001 through 2004 Duncan was lobbying the department on a wide range of issues. The topics, according to his lobbying records on file with the government, included oil leases in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, coal-bed methane in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and permits for the proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline.
After Griles resigned from Interior, Bush appointed Wooldridge to head the Justice Department's 600-employee environment division, representing virtually every federal agency on cases related to pollution, natural resources, wildlife, some Indian issues and land condemnation. She began work at Justice in November 2005. The division is now handling about 6,800 cases nationwide.
Griles, meanwhile, had signed up as lobbying clients the American Petroleum Institute, Newmont Mining Corp. and other energy and mining clients with a broad range of legal and financial interests before the government.
Ethics office reportedly signed off
As for the vacation home, Stephen W. Grafman, Wooldridge's attorney, said she paid for her share 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. He has no business before the environment division. He never lobbied Ms Wooldridge on an issue on behalf of himself. In point of fact, he never lobbied her on behalf of ConocoPhillips."
Griles' lawyer, Barry M. Hartman, called the home "a shared investment among people who have been close personal friends for years. What exactly is wrong with three close personal friends sharing a vacation/rental home?"
Wooldridge submitted her resignation letter to the Justice Department 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 work in the private sector.
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 Kiawah Island partnership and the ConocoPhillips settlement "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. All of the other parties to the ConocoPhillips agreement — four states, the Environmental Protection Agency, a local pollution control agency in Washington state, and the company — signed it in November.
Deal delays cleanup
Wooldridge's signature is not dated, but the document with it as well as the other signatures weren't submitted to the U.S. District Court in Houston, where ConocoPhillips is headquartered, until Jan. 11. It was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 25, triggering a 30-day public comment period before U.S. District Judge Sim Lake can decide whether to approve or reject it.
One of the proposed agreements would change the terms of a major air pollution settlement announced with fanfare in 2005 by Wooldridge's predecessor at the Justice Department, Thomas Sansonetti. In addition to installing a half-billion dollars in new pollution controls, ConocoPhillips agreed to pay a $4.5 million fine to settle charges of Clean Air Act violations.
The new agreement Wooldridge signed delays many of the deadlines the government had imposed on the company _ some by two to three years _ for cutting emissions of chemicals from its refineries that cause smog and soot. It also postponed by more than a year some potential penalties and pollution reporting requirements. The agreement cited damage to a refinery in Belle Chasse, La., from Hurricane Katrina as justification for some of the delays. EPA referred all comment to the Justice Department.
Wooldridge did not list her purchase of the South Carolina resort community home with Griles and ConocoPhillips' Duncan in a financial disclosure report she submitted a month after the real estate deal. That report covered calendar 2005 and Wooldridge resigned before having to submit a financial disclosure report covering 2006.
The other refineries covered in the consent decree are in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas in California, Roxana, Ill., Linden, N.J., Trainer, Pa., Borger and Old Ocean, Texas, and Ferndale, Wash.
Wooldridge also put her undated signature on a proposed consent decree filed in January involving ConocoPhillips and a Superfund toxic waste site. The agreement calls for nearly 100 companies to pay $500,000 in damages and up to $10 million to clean up an 8-acre former solvent recycling facility in Elkton, Md., that closed in 1988.
Separately, Justice Department prosecutors notified Griles by letter last month that he faces possible criminal charges of lying to Congress and fraud under a 1988 law that says citizens are entitled to "honest services" from public officials.
The charges involve questions about whether Griles passed on information from Abramoff to other Interior officials and falsely testified in 2005 before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about Abramoff's attempts to hire him away from Interior. Abramoff is serving about six years in prison for a fraudulent deal to buy a fleet of casino ships in Florida and awaits sentencing in Washington after pleading guilty to corrupting government officials and their staff members with bribes.
ConocoPhillips and Duncan had no comment.
On Monday, ConocoPhillips notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of changes in its bylaws and ethics code. "The promise, offer or delivery to an official or employee of the U.S. government of a gift, favor or other gratuity in violation of these rules would not only violate company policy but could also be a criminal offense," the company said.