Reno orders 90-day extension of preliminary Babbitt inquiry Political motives alleged in his 1995 rejection of Indian casino project

November 14, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno extended a preliminary inquiry yesterday into allegations that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt rejected an American Indian casino project because of Democratic Party contributions from its opponents.

Her move gives the Justice Department 90 more days to determine if there is sufficient "specific and credible" evidence of wrongdoing by Babbitt to request the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

Babbitt has insisted that his 1995 rejection of a casino application filed by three bands of impoverished Wisconsin Chippewa Indians was entirely lawful and proper, and without political considerations. His office reiterated that position yesterday.

But Babbitt's congressional testimony and statements have been at odds with those of another key witness, and his recollection of a crucial meeting has changed.

During the past month, while the Justice Department was conducting an initial 30-day review of the matter, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee highlighted the conflicting accounts as part of its inquiry into Democratic fund-raising practices.

"The allegations that there was improper White House or Democratic National Committee influence and that I was a conduit for that influence are demonstrably false," Babbitt told the Senate panel Oct. 30.

His testimony clashed with that of Paul Eckstein, a lawyer who had been hired to lobby for the casino by the Wisconsin Indians, who wanted to acquire the site of a failing dog track in Hudson, Wis., for their gambling operation, and a racetrack operator.

Eckstein, a former law partner and longtime friend of Babbitt's, said that he met with the secretary of the Interior on July 14, 1995, and that Babbitt told him Harold M. Ickes, then White House deputy chief of staff, was pressing him to make a decision on the project that day.

Babbitt mentioned political donations to the Democrats by other Indian tribes, Eckstein testified.

The opponents -- who feared that another casino would drain patrons away from their own -- ultimately contributed more than $270,000 to the DNC, most of it in the days after the decision went their way.

In rejecting the casino project, Babbitt ignored the recommendation of the regional office of Interior's Bureau of XTC Indian Affairs. His decision also came after aides to Ickes had called Interior Department officials three times to check on the status of the case, according to official documents.

DNC Chairman Don Fowler has testified that he also called "someone at Interior" about the application that was being opposed by the large tribal donors.

After Reno announced her decision to extend the inquiry, Babbitt spokesman Mike Gauldin said rejection of the request by Wisconsin tribes for the casino site was based on policy.

"It was faithful to our policy not to force off-reservation gaming onto any community that is opposed to it, as was the case here," Gauldin said. "It was reached on the merits, not on the basis of any alleged political influence.

"We will continue to cooperate with the Department of Justice in this matter, and we are confident that the attorney general will ultimately conclude that no independent counsel is warranted."

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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