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Babbitt To Testify on Casino

January 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is facing a grilling by House Republicans seeking to prove that politics improperly influenced the rejection of a proposed Indian gambling casino in Wisconsin.

Babbitt was scheduled today to be the final witness of four days of House hearings on allegations that tribes opposing the casino used promises of large political donations to pressure the White House to influence the decision. These tribes eventually gave $286,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

Babbitt has denied that politics or campaign donations played any part in the 1995 decision, an assertion that was supported by current and former Interior Department officials who have testified before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury investigating Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin ``Charlie″ Trie and an associate has returned its first indictment in connection with fund raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign.

The indictment was presented Wednesday to U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson, but the process was put on hold when the Justice Department asked that the contents, including those named in the indictment, not be made public.

Two of Babbitt’s former top aides told the House panel Wednesday that there was no attempt by the White House or Democratic Party officials to pressure the agency to reject the proposal by three bands of Chippewa to build a casino at a Hudson, Wis. dog track.

``The decision was made on the facts and on the merits, I am continually amazed this is not obvious to all parties,″ said John Duffy, Babbitt’s former counselor.

Duffy and Thomas Collier, Babbitt’s former chief of staff, cited local opposition as the basis for the agency’s rejection of the casino application.

``I think you made the right decision, but I’m afraid you made it for the wrong reasons,″ said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.

But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., argued that after three days of hearings ``we have no evidence of political influence, we just don’t.″

Still, Babbitt faced tough questions about why he told a lobbyist for the tribes seeking the casino that White House aide Harold Ickes had asked him to make a decision on the matter.

Babbitt initially denied making the statement in a 1996 letter to Congress. But he changed his story and told Senate hearings last fall that he was merely invoking Ickes’ name to get the lobbyist to leave his office.

The Justice Department is reviewing Babbitt’s statements to determine if an independent counsel should investigate the secretary for making false statements to Congress. A decision is expected next month.

In the Aug. 30, 1996 letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took issue with an assertion by lobbyist Paul Eckstin ``that I told him that Mr. Ickes instructed me to issue a decision in this matter without delay,″ Babbitt wrote. ``I never discussed the matter with Mr. Ickes.″

But in Senate testimony last fall, Babbitt acknowledged invoking Ickes’ name but called the remark ``an awkward effort to terminate an uncomfortable meeting on a personally sympathetic note.″

Babbitt is also expected to be questioned about another remark Eckstein said he made during the meeting on July 14, 1995, the day the Interior Department announced its decision.

Eckstein, who was a law school classmate of Babbitt’s, testified that Babbitt asked him if he knew Indian tribes had given $500,000 to the Democratic Party. Babbitt said he ``had no recollection″ of making the comment.

Patrick O’Connor, a former Democratic Party treasurer hired by one of the opposing tribes, testified Wednesday that he asked Democratic fund-raiser Terence McAuliffe and then-DNC chairman Donald Fowler for help getting a meeting with Ickes.

``I was hoping Mr. Ickes would give us a meeting, hopefully he would make an inquiry″ at the Interior Department and tell officials there that ``people have approached me and feel you are not focusing on their opposition.″

Although O’Connor never got the meeting he sought, Ickes’ staff made three inquiries at the Interior Department on the status of the casino application.

O’Connor, who personally lobbied President Clinton on the issue, also acknowledged that he billed his clients for discussions he had with Fowler about fund raising.

At the time, O’Connor says he had agreed to try to raise $50,000 from Indians for Clinton’s re-election campaign. But O’Connor says he never tied a promise of a contribution to a request for a favorable decision on the casino application.

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