Babbitt denies push on casinos Cabinet official says he had no directions from White House

'Awfully deep water here'

Republicans on panel claim campaign money brought favors

October 31, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In what may have been the grand finale of the Senate's campaign fund-raising hearings, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied yesterday that he was pressured by the White House in 1995 to reject an Indian casino proposal that had been opposed by big Democratic donors.

But Babbitt acknowledged that in a conversation with a lawyer for the rejected Indian tribes, he "probably" said that Harold Ickes, then a deputy White House chief of staff, had wanted or expected a decision. Babbitt said that he used Ickes' name merely to get the lawyer, Paul F. Eckstein, out of his office and that in reality he had not talked with Ickes.

"It was just an awkward effort to terminate an uncomfortable meeting," Babbitt said. "I had no such communication with Mr. Ickes or anyone else from the White House."

Republicans sought to use the casino case to show that campaign dollars may have bought favors in the form of policy decisions by the Clinton administration.

Back-to-back testimony yesterday from Eckstein and Babbitt -- possibly the last day of hearings for the Governmental Affairs Committee -- made for an extraordinary session that pitted two men who had been Harvard Law School classmates, law partners in Arizona and longtime friends.

Eckstein led Babbitt's gubernatorial campaign in 1972, and, after Babbitt was governor, had been in his "kitchen Cabinet." The two had hiked down the Grand Canyon together.

"It ought to be pretty obvious this whole thing has been painful to me," Eckstein said.

He told the committee that he approached Babbitt on July 14, 1995, the day the casino decision was made, to ask the Interior secretary to delay the ruling. Eckstein said he wanted his clients, three Chippewa tribes in Wisconsin, to first have a chance to make their case for the casinos.

"His response was that Harold Ickes had directed him to issue the decision that day," Eckstein said of Babbitt.

Eckstein said he does not believe Babbitt's explanation that the secretary had merely used Ickes' name to end the conversation.

"It wasn't true, as I perceived it, that it was done to get me out the door because it was done at the beginning of the conversation," Eckstein said. "I was in his office for a long time after that."

Babbitt has long enjoyed a reputation for integrity. But yesterday, emboldened by his longtime friend's damaging testimony, Republicans attacked Babbitt's veracity. When the ZTC Interior secretary likened his use of Ickes' name to telling an unwanted visitor that someone was waiting for him on the phone, the committee chairman, Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, seemed annoyed and skeptical.

"I think you're getting into awfully deep water here, but that's up to you," Thompson said.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma told Babbitt, "Either Mr. Eckstein lied, or you're not telling the truth."

Ickes himself has denied ever speaking to Babbitt about the casino matter.

At issue is a proposal for a casino on a dog-racing track in Hudson, Wis., that three tribes had applied for in 1994. The local Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the project and sent it on to Washington for further review.

The casino was opposed by a group of Indian tribes that had casinos of their own and feared that competition from a new casino would cut into their sizable profits. The opposing tribes contributed $280,000 to the Democratic Party in the 1995-1996 election cycle, after the Interior Department ruling.

Documents and testimony show there was much communication between a lobbyist for the opposing tribes, Patrick O'Connor, who was a former Democratic National Committee official, and DNC and White House officials, including President Clinton, on the casino matter. There were also contacts between Ickes' staff and Babbitt's staff.

Yesterday, Republicans produced an entry from O'Connor's diary. On July 14, 1995, the day the Interior Department ruled against the casino, O'Connor wrote about his plans to "follow up" with Ickes, DNC Chairman Donald Fowler and Terry McAuliffe, finance director for the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign, about "fund-raising strategies."

But Babbitt insisted yesterday that the decision to deny the application was based "solely" on the department's policy not to approve such Indian gaming proposals over community

opposition. In this case, Babbitt said, there was "virtually unanimous opposition" by local officials. He called the agency's ruling an "entirely correct decision uninfluenced by outside considerations."

The Justice Department has opened a 30-day review to determine whether an independent counsel should be appointed investigate Babbitt's actions in the matter.

Though defiant in his opening statement, Babbitt seemed rattled and uncomfortable when questioned by committee Republicans about his conversation with Eckstein and the varying accounts of it that he has given.

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