Adding to the weight of scandal bearing down on the Clinton administration, Attorney General Janet Reno requested Wednesday an independent counsel to investigate another Cabinet official, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Babbitt, who long boasted a reputation as “Mr. Clean,” would be scrutinized for possibly lying to senators about remarks he had made during a meeting with a lobbyist. That meeting concerned a controversial 1995 decision to reject a proposed Indian casino in Wisconsin, a decision some claim was political.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted into whether Secretary Babbitt may have violated a federal criminal law,” Reno wrote to a special three-judge panel.
That panel still must finalize Reno’s decision and select an attorney to serve as independent counsel. But that is almost certain to happen soon.
If so, this would be the first independent counsel to arise from the wide-ranging allegations of campaign finance abuses. Reno already has considered, but rejected, an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for possible fund-raising violations.
Babbitt would be the fourth Clinton Cabinet member whose activities have required investigation by an independent counsel. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros has been indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI, and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has been indicted for allegedly taking improper gifts. An independent counsel also investigated Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s finances, but that probe was ended after Brown’s death.
Clinton, of course, remains under investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
What makes Babbitt’s plight so striking is that he always has been considered absolutely free from any ethical taint. Babbitt was recently a candidate for the Supreme Court, and when he ran for president he was considered so straitlaced as to be boring.
The saga that led to Reno’s decision Wednesday began in July 1995, when Babbitt’s Interior Department turned down an application by three Indian tribes to open a casino at a dog track in Hudson, Wis.
A coalition of other tribes had fought the casino, which would have competed with their own gambling operations. When it emerged that those tribes had given more than $300,000 to the Democratic Party, Republicans cited it as a bald case of political favoritism.
Babbitt has insisted the casino was rejected for legitimate reasons, including widespread local opposition.
In testimony before the Senate, Babbitt acknowledged that, during a 1995 meeting with lobbyist Paul Eckstein, he had mentioned the name of Harold Ickes, a White House adviser and top Clinton political operative. Babbitt said he mentioned that Ickes wanted a decision on the casino simply as a white lie to end the meeting and get Eckstein out of his office.
But Eckstein has given a more sinister account of the meeting, saying Babbitt told him Ickes specifically wanted a decision that day. Babbitt also mentioned that tribes opposed to the casino had made substantial contributions to the Democrats, Eckstein said.
Reno said her investigation had found “specific and credible evidence indicating that Secretary Babbitt may have testified falsely about the reference to Harold Ickes.”
Reno asked for an independent counsel only to determine whether Babbitt lied - not to examine the more explosive question of whether politics influenced the decision to reject the casino.
But what Democrats fear, and Republicans hope, is that the new independent counsel will find a way to expand the mission and investigate a broad array of possible fund-raising abuses.