Abramoff Probe Casts Shadow on Norton's Resignation

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced plans Friday to resign her post at the end of the month. While she isn't the target of a probe involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, questions linger about loose connections she may have to him. Hear Debbie Elliott and NPR's Peter Overby.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT: U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton is cleaning out her desk. She'll be leaving at the end of the month. Norton announced her resignation on Friday. She says she wants to catch her breath and set her sights on new goals. Her resignation came as a surprise. Some in Washington wonder if it has to do with the Interior Department's links to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty on corruption charges. Here to help us work through that question is NPR's correspondent who covers lobbyists, Peter Overby. Peter, let's get right to the point. Is Gale Norton connected to Jack Abramoff?

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Well, it depends on what you mean by connected. There was little direct contact between the two of them but she was the object of some really intense lobbying by Abramoff. This is based on a couple of hearings held by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, hundreds of emails that the committee released. We know that Abramoff did have pretty regular contacts with two people who were close to Norton.

ELLIOTT: Who were those two people?

OVERBY: One of them was Steve Griles. He was the Deputy Secretary of the Interior. That's the right hand man to the secretary basically. The other was Italia Federici. She is a friend of Norton and succeeded Norton as the head of a group called CREA, Council of Republicans for Environment Advocacy. That is a group that Norton co-founded before she became Secretary. I should say here that Griles and Federici emphatically deny any wrongdoing and at the committee hearings Senator John McCain, the committee chairman, said there's no evidence that Norton is involved in this stuff.

ELLIOTT: So why are we talking about it?

OVERBY: Well, we're talking about it because of Jack Abramoff and because of Indian casinos. A lot of this has to do with Indian casinos. In one big case Abramoff was trying to block a land deal for a tribe down in Louisiana. The reason he wanted to block it was that the tribe wanted to open a casino that would have competed with a casino owned by a tribe that Abramoff represented.

So in this case and in others Abramoff steered money from Indian tribes to CREA. In turn that enabled him to enlist Federici to work with Griles, work through the Interior Department to reach Norton. It also got Abramoff and a couple of the tribal leaders invited to an exclusive CREA dinner with Norton. There were 24 people at this Georgetown affair and there was another element that was a little murkier. He got two tribes to split the cost of a poll by CREA. Abramoff told he tribes that the poll was being conducted on behalf of Gale Norton, Secretary of Interior.

ELLIOTT: So it sounds like to me that the key here is that Abramoff got really close to people who were really close to Gale Norton.

OVERBY: That's exactly right. Federici had ties to Griles, the former Deputy Secretary, and both of them had close ties to Norton. We're not sure but it appears to be part of the federal investigation of Abramoff's activities. Just one more thread in this complex tapestry of activities by Jack Abramoff.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Peter Overby thank you.

OVERBY: Thank you.

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