A three-judge federal panel Thursday named Carol Elder Bruce, a white-collar defense lawyer and former veteran federal prosecutor, as an independent counsel to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to the Senate about his role in rejecting an Indian casino in Wisconsin.
The judges said Bruce should determine if Babbitt made false statements when he swore to senators last October that his decision turning down a casino application in 1996 by three Indian tribes had nothing to do with Democratic campaign contributions made by opponents of the gaming proposal.
The judges said Bruce may venture beyond a simple perjury investigation in order to determine “whether any violation of federal criminal law occurred” in connection with the department’s consideration of the tribes’ off-reservation casino request.
However, the appellate panel ignored Republican requests that the independent counsel be given a broad enough mandate to investigate a wide range of improper or allegedly illegal Democratic campaign contributions in the 1996 election.
Bruce’s appointment marks the fifth outside inquiry into a Clinton Cabinet member since the administration took office in January 1993. One independent counsel, Daniel Pearson, resigned two years ago after his subject, Commerce ecretary Ronald H. Brown, was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia.
Three others are still pursuing investigations, one into the Whitewater land deal and more recent allegations of presidential wrongdoing, another into charges that former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros lied to FBI agents and the third into allegations that former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted gratuities from companies doing business with his department.
In addition, Attorney General Janet Reno has recently told the judges she needs more time to decide whether an outside counsel will be needed to probe allegations that Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman illegally accepted cash to help business interests while she served as a White House aide.
The appointment of Bruce, 48, a former deputy independent counsel in an investigation that cleared Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III of criminal wrong-doing in the late 1980s, was sought in a written submission to the appellate court by Reno last month.
Babbitt has strongly denied any wrongdoing, saying political influence did not play any role in the denial of the casino application. He said the decision followed departmental guidelines, noting that the proposed casino at Hudson, Wis., was opposed by the local community.
Bruce said she “will promptly begin an investigation with the goal of thoughtfully and expeditiously” discharging her responsibilities.