February 22, 1998 in Nation/World

Timing Of Interior Casino Rejection Raised Babbitt At White House For Political Meeting 2 Days Before Initial Decision Made

Don Van Natta Jr. New York Times
 

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attended a political meeting at the White House just two days before Interior Department staff members reached a preliminary decision to reject an Indian casino application in May 1995, according to a copy of Babbitt’s schedule that was not previously disclosed.

After the intimate, one-hour political meeting, Babbitt attended a Democratic National Committee dinner at the Hay Adams hotel in Washington with other Cabinet secretaries.

The interior secretary is facing a criminal investigation because of accusations that he and his staff allowed political considerations, including promised campaign contributions for the Democratic Party, to influence the department’s rejection of a casino proposal in Wisconsin. He has insisted under oath that the decision was made based on merits, without political consideration.

Attorney General Janet Reno asked a judicial panel to appoint an independent counsel to investigate his role.

Lloyd Cutler, Babbitt’s personal lawyer, said Friday that it was “just coincidental” that the secretary met at the White House in the same week that his staff made a preliminary decision to reject the application. Cutler said it had not been discussed with Harold Ickes, the White House chief of staff who was running the presidential reelection campaign.

“He is quite sure that he had no conversation with Ickes or anyone else about the casino issue at that meeting,” Cutler said.

The counsel Reno sought has not yet been appointed, but his role will be to investigate whether Babbitt had lied to Congress and whether the agency’s decision to reject a bid by three Chippewa tribes to turn a failing greyhound racing track in Hudson, Wis., into a high-stakes casino had been “criminally corrupted.”

Babbitt’s attendance at the two events on May 15, 1995, came at a critical time for the casino application. Two days later, his staff members first decided that they would likely reject the casino project. The casino had been opposed by a group of wealthy Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes, who hired a lobbyist to press the White House and who later contributed $230,000 to the Democrats.

Babbitt has insisted that he was “out of the loop” during the agency’s decision making, and he has repeatedly said the agency’s decision was made on the merits alone.

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