Under hostile questioning from Republican congressmen, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified Thursday that his department’s decision in 1995 to reject a permit to build an Indian casino in Wisconsin was based on the merits of the case not political pressure.
But the House’s chief inquisitor into campaign finance abuses, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said that four days of hearings by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee had unearthed evidence that the casino’s fate may have been sealed in exchange for campaign contributions.
Burton called on Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether Babbitt lied to Congress in the course of the inquiry. Reno has until Feb. 11 to decide whether to do so.
Babbitt, a former two-term governor of Arizona, remains the highest-ranking political figure at risk from the continuing year-long congressional campaign finance investigations.
Babbitt on Thursday made the same assertions that he gave to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last October. But unlike his ill-prepared defense before the Senate panel, a well-briefed Babbitt on Thursday immediately went on the offensive, repeatedly sparring with his Republican antagonists.
Interior’s decision to deny the casino permit, made by a career civil servant and approved by his politically appointed boss, was “firmly grounded in the law, consistent with department practices and based on the merits of the case,” Babbitt said.
Babbitt said he and his agency had been maligned by unsubstantiated accusations “manufactured by the losers to take advantage of the corrosive political atmosphere that surrounds this city.” At one point, Babbitt described the lobbyists for the tribes backing the casino as “scuzzy.”
When Burton ticked off a string of internal e-mails, memorandums and billing records that suggested White House aides or Democratic fund-raisers might have influenced the department’s decision, Babbitt shot back, “If you’re bound on a conspiracy and oblivious to the facts, I don’t know where to begin.”
The secretary dismissed an exchange between one of his top aides and an assistant to former deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes as “routine status checks,” prompted at least once by an inquiry from Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to Ickes.
At issue is a permit sought by three bands of Chippewa Indians to convert a failing dog track into a gaming parlor in Hudson, Wis., on the Minnesota border about a half-hour east of St. Paul. The proposal was opposed by five rival tribes from Minnesota and Wisconsin who feared that a new casino would cut into the profits of their own gambling operations.