WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department yesterday requested an interview with an Interior Department official, reportedly as part of a preliminary investigation of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The inquiry could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel.
The subject of the interviews is thought to be allegations that Babbitt rejected an application for an Indian casino in response to pressure from White House officials and some rival Indian tribes who were big Democratic donors.
Babbitt spokesman Michael Gauldin said Justice officials asked to interview a member of Babbitt's staff, but not the secretary himself. Gauldin referred all questions about the nature of the inquiry to the Justice Department, which had no comment.
The inquiry is a 30-day review in which Justice officials will try to determine whether there is "specific and credible" evidence that Babbitt violated a law, warranting the appointment of a special prosecutor, the Wall Street Journal and ABC News reported yesterday.
Babbitt has volunteered to answer questions about the casino matter before the Senate panel investigating campaign fund raising. He is scheduled to testify before the Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, along with representatives of the Chippewa Indian tribes who had hoped to build their casino on a dog track in Hudson, Wis.
The interior secretary has insisted that he turned down the casino proposal solely on its merits, and not to please opposing tribes that later gave $270,000 to the Democratic Party.
"There was no other way the decision could have been made under our law and policies," said Gauldin.
Gauldin said there had been "clear and adamant" opposition to the casino from the local community. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, this local opposition -- expressed in letters from elected officials -- meant that the Interior Department could not grant the request, Gauldin said.
The department under Babbitt "has never approved acquiring land for off-reservation gaming if the local community expressed significant opposition," Gauldin said.
But three Chippewa Indian tribes that wanted to build the casino assert that senior White House and Democratic officials intervened on behalf of opposition tribes. These opponents -- seven Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes that contributed to the Democrats in 1995 and 1996 -- were represented by a Democratic lobbyist and former party official. The tribes ran their own casinos and feared that the Hudson operation would cut their revenues.
"We had nothing but silence for six months and then a rejection letter," said Mark Goff, a spokesman for the Chippewas, "while the opposing lobbyists had a revolving door at the Interior Department and Democratic Party."
The Chippewa tribes have filed suit against Babbitt and his deputies. In response, a federal judge in Wisconsin who reviewed a summary of White House memos ruled there was evidence that "improper political pressure may have influenced agency decision-making."
Babbitt is likely to be peppered by questions about a conversation he had with Paul F. Eckstein, his former law partner who represented the rejected Chippewa tribes. Eckstein is also expected to testify Thursday.
In a sworn statement, Eckstein said that when he met with Babbitt in July 1995 to appeal the Interior Department's decision, Babbitt told him he was under orders from Harold M. Ickes, then a deputy White House chief of staff, to stick with his decision.
Last year, Babbitt denied he ever said Ickes had pressured him and said he must "respectfully dispute" Eckstein's assertion.
Two weeks ago, though, Babbitt wrote to Sen. Fred Thompson, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee investigating fund-raising abuses, saying that he believed Eckstein's recollection was correct after all.
"Mr. Eckstein was extremely persistent in our meeting, and I used this phrase simply as a means of terminating the discussion and getting him out the door," Babbitt wrote.
Babbitt added that he had never actually discussed the matter with Ickes. Ickes told the committee he did not recall ever having called Babbitt on the matter.
But court documents, depositions and testimony reveal that Ickes and Donald Fowler, then the Democratic national chairman, did have numerous dealings with Patrick O'Connor, a fund-raiser and a former DNC treasurer who was representing the Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes in their effort to kill the Hudson casino.
O'Connor first mentioned his opposition to the casino proposal to President Clinton and Bruce Lindsey, a top Clinton adviser, in Minnesota in April 1995. From Air Force One, Lindsey called a White House aide who was handling tribal affairs and related his conversation with O'Connor.
After that phone call, according to White House memos, the aide and a domestic policy adviser cautioned senior staff that it would be "political poison" for administration officials to get "anywhere near this issue."