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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Getting Cozy with Conoco?

Air Date: Week of

Guest Jonathan Turley is a professor at the George Washington University Law School. (Photo: George Washington University Law School)

Host Steve Curwood talks with legal analyst Jonathan Turley about a brewing new scandal in Washington involving two environmental regulators and an oil industry lobbyist.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Scandal continues to haunt Washington, and the latest allegations involve two top environmental regulators. Former Deputy Interior Secretary, J. Steven Griles has been under investigation in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying affair. Now it turns out that Mr. Griles and his girlfriend, Sue Ellen Wooldrige, purchased a million dollar beach house with Donald Duncan. He’s a vice president of Conoco Phillips, the nation’s third largest oil company.

Until last fall Ms. Wooldridge was also the top Justice Department official for environmental enforcement. And she is now under fire for signing a consent order that would allow Conoco to delay payment of more than a half billion dollars in fines and expenses to clean up a polluting oil refinery. Joining us today to talk about these developments is Jonathan Turley, he’s law professor at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

Hello Sir.


CURWOOD: So, what wrong with three friends going in together on a piece of real estate?

Guest Jonathan Turley is a professor at the George Washington University Law School. (Photo: George Washington University Law School)

TURLEY: Well, the problem is when the three friends include two regulators and one regulated party. For people in this city it’s the ultimate symbolism for the Bush administration. It’s always been argued that they’re uncomfortably close to industry. Here you’ve actually got two of the chief regulators actually sharing a home with a lobbyist. So on its face this raises obvious concerns.

CURWOOD: This is all a bit complicated for people outside of Washington. Can you walk me through the details of this case? Who are the officials involved in the purchase of this, ah, beach house?

TURLEY: Well first of all some of them are quite well known. The best know is J. Steven Griles who is the former deputy interior secretary who’s always been a focus of great controversy. When he was first brought into the administration a lot of environmentalists identified him and others as people that had worked for the industries that they would now regulate. There’s also Don Duncan who is the vice president of federal and international affairs for Conoco-Phillips, one of the major lobbyists in Washington as you might imagine. And then finally there’s Sue Ellen Wooldrige who’s the former assistant attorney general in charge of the environment and natural resources.

Former Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior: J. Steven Griles. (Courtesy of U.S. DOI)

CURWOOD: Tell me about this consent decree that’s at the core of this controversy. Now as I understand it a couple of years back, ah, Conoco-Phillips had settled with the EPA and four states but then the case was reopened?

TURLEY: It was. Conoco-Phillips came back and said we would like more time. Essentially we’re not going to fulfill the agreement that we made. And so the proposed changes would have delayed the need for the company to put in over a half billion dollars worth of emissions controls at refineries. And this was viewed by many as a signature move for the Bush administration. Sort of back door effort to help out industry avoid pollution abatement at the very time that there’s all this concern about air pollution and global warming and all the other questions that quietly people like Griles were working to relax these types of commitments.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the half billion dollars that Conoco didn’t have to spend right away. How does that compare to their profits?

TURLEY: Well, half a billion dollars will concentrate the mind of any company even this one. This is 525 million dollars worth of abatement devices that Conoco-Phillips promised it would put in to settle that case. And when, essentially, the bill came due they said, “We prefer not to do that.” Now what was particularly strange is that these companies were having record profits. So there really wasn’t any good reason for delaying this earlier agreement.

CURWOOD: What was the role of Mr. Griles and Ms. Wooldrige in this proposed consent decree that would let Conoco off the hook for a longer period of time?

TURLEY: Well the most direct role was by Wooldrige who signed the proposed consent decree. And the role of Griles is yet to be determined. These are two individuals who may be more reluctant now to discuss their involvement with anything dealing with Conoco-Phillips. First of all Griles is under criminal investigation linked to the Abramoff matter. Also Wooldrige may face certain ethical question even ethical charges. But Congress is proceeding to investigate all of these matters.

Sue Ellen Wooldridge is the Former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. (Courtesy of U.S. DOJ)

CURWOOD: Of what significance is it that Ms. Wooldrige here was chief of the environmental enforcement division of the justice department?

TURLEY: Well really these are the two individuals that are the soup to nuts for environmental regulation that interior handles many of the issues that affect these corporations, ah, with the EPA they’re often the boots on the ground. And the Justice Department exercises the critical authority over whether to prosecute or enforce. So if you had to buy a house as a lobbyist with two people these would be the perfect housemates.

CURWOOD: How high do these decisions go in the Bush Administration? Who would have had to sign off on the appointments of Mr. Griles and Ms. Wooldrige?

TURLEY: That’s really what everyone’s talking about in Washington, is where the trajectory of this scandal will go. Some of the most common questions being asked around coffee shops are: who knew about the romantic relationship between these two individuals or possibly this house deal? Who were, essentially, the patrones of these individuals? Who protected Griles? I mean Griles has been radioactive for years and yet he was kept in government. He didn’t do that by himself. So what Congress is going to be looking at is not just what occurred here and how it could happen, but who were the facilitators? Who were the protectors? Who knew about this romantic relationship and its implications? Who knew about these interventions and the involvement in this consent decree? That’s really where this scandal is going. Now remember these are two very high up individuals. There’s not a lot of folks above their pay grade. So anyone above them is going to cause real problems for the Bush Administration. Just above them you’re going to start to hit cabinet officials. And just above the cabinet you’re going to hit Vice President Cheney and ultimately President Bush.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Turley is professor of public interest law at George Washington University. Thank you sir.

TURLEY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth contacted the attorneys for both J. Steven Griles and for Sue Ellen Wooldridge but both declined to comment. The Justice department says it is reviewing the matter.



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