WASHINGTON – A senior Justice Department official who recently resigned her post bought a nearly $1 million vacation home with a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips months before approving consent decrees that would give the oil company more time to pay millions of dollars in fines and meet pollution-cleanup rules at some of its refineries.
Sue Ellen Wooldridge, former assistant attorney general in charge of environment and natural resources, bought a $980,000 home on Kiawah Island, S.C., last March with ConocoPhillips lobbyist Don R. Duncan. A third owner of the house is J. Steven Griles, a former deputy interior secretary, who has been informed he is a target in the investigation of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying activities.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said Wednesday that Wooldridge sought and received approval from a career ethics official in her office before buying the vacation property. Wooldridge’s lawyer and officials at ConocoPhillips said that Duncan had no role in negotiating the consent decrees and never lobbied Wooldridge.
Wooldridge, who earlier served in senior positions at the Interior Department, lives with Griles in Virginia. Her investment with Griles and the oil lobbyist took place on March 13, 2006, property records show, during a Justice Department criminal investigation that involves Griles and lobbyists at Interior. The joint purchase and Wooldridge’s role in the consent decrees were reported Wednesday by the Associated Press.
Stephen Grafman, an attorney for Wooldridge, said his client owns a 25 percent share of the vacation property. “She used her own money,” Grafman said. He said that Wooldridge was called in November before a grand jury investigating Abramoff and Griles but that she is not under investigation.
In November 2006, ConocoPhillips reached proposed consent decrees with the federal government and four states that would modify an agreement the company had reached with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to settle charges it was violating the Clean Air Act. The proposed changes, which must be approved by a federal judge overseeing the case, would give the company more time to install equipment and processes that would cost an estimated $525 million to cut emissions at some refineries.
Wooldridge, as head of the Justice Department’s environmental division, signed the agreements on behalf of the federal government.
In lobbying disclosure forms filed last year, Duncan – ConocoPhillips’s vice president for federal and international affairs – said he lobbied Congress on reforms to the Clean Air Act. He did not report lobbying the Justice Department or other federal agencies.