Justice Dept. officials seek further probe of Babbitt Reno urged to extend look at donation, casino denial


WASHINGTON -- Justice Department officials have urged Attorney General Janet Reno to extend an investigation that could lead to the appointment of an independent prosecutor to examine Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's role in a decision to kill an Indian casino project, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

The officials said that top aides to Reno had recommended in a memo that she prolong the inquiry, but the officials cautioned that Reno had not approved the decision, which must be made by today and would subject Babbitt to a 60-day preliminary inquiry by Justice Department prosecutors.

The casino project was rejected in 1995 by Interior Department officials in Washington after rival Indian casino operators hired a high-profile Democratic lobbyist, Patrick O'Connor. He had influential contacts with White House and party officials, including Harold Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff; Bruce Lindsey, a presidential counselor; and Donald Fowler, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Last year, after the decision, the tribes opposing the permit contributed $230,000 to the Democratic Party. And since then, Republican senators investigating campaign finance abuses have themselves investigated the casino deal and suggested that it was an instance in which government policy was made in return for a political donation.

In an appearance Oct. 30 before the Senate investigating committee, Babbitt denied under oath that politics played a role in the casino decision.

Yesterday, an aide to Babbitt said he had not been advised of any Justice Department action. "It would not be unexpected," said Stephanie Hanna, a spokeswoman for Babbitt. She said it would have been difficult for investigators to sort through the 14-volume record of the case during the 30-day review.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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