Presidential aides plunged into casino fight

WASHINGTON - Despite warnings that White House involvement would be "disastrous" and "political poison," presidential aides contacted the Interior Department three times in 1995 about an Indian casino opposed by a Democratic fund-raiser, internal memos show.

The aides inquired about the pending decision and learned weeks in advance that Interior was likely to rule in favor of the wealthy tribes who opposed the casino, the documents show. The tribes later donated more than $270,000 to the Democratic Party.

The White House memos reviewed by The Associated Press show that a lobbyist-fund-raiser for a tribe opposing the casino pressed the White House to intervene. Federal court records show the lobbyist suggested to Democratic officials four days later that he could get some tribal members to attend a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser for President Clinton.

Senate investigators are now looking into whether the lobbyist's contacts or the subsequent donations had any bearing on the administration's decision to block the Wisconsin casino.

The White House said Wednesday that its contacts "were not an effort to influence the department's decision and that the department was well on its way toward its final decision before the first status inquiry was made."

"There is no indication that any of the status information the White House learned was passed on to anybody outside the White House," its statement added.

The administration's decision has prompted a federal lawsuit by the tribes who were denied permission to convert a dog track in Hudson, Wis., into a casino.

The memos, turned over Tuesday night to Senate and House investigators, detail how lobbyist Patrick J. O'Connor's brief contact with Clinton on April 24, 1995, set in motion top White House advisers Bruce Lindsey and Harold Ickes, and later Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler.

They also show that presidential aides knew from the start that O'Connor had ties to Democratic fund raising and that some advised against any intervention with Interior.

"The legal and political implications of our involvement would be disastrous," Loretta Avent, a White House specialist on Indian affairs, warned in an April 24, 1995, memo to Ickes, then the deputy chief of staff.

Domestic policy adviser Michael T. Schmidt sounded a similar sentiment in a memo that same day to the White House counsel's office. "We legally cannot intervene with the secretary of interior on this issue. ... It would be political poison for the president or his staff to be anywhere near this issue."

Those memos were prompted by a call Avent received that day from Lindsey aboard Air Force One. The documents said O'Connor, who represented a tribe opposed to the casino venture, had raised concerns with the president during a brief encounter at a Minnesota event.

Avent wrote that Lindsey asked why she had not returned earlier calls from O'Connor but that Lindsey also "understands the way I operate" and that she agreed to call the lobbyist back and explain the situation.

One of the memos referred to O'Connor as a "lobbyist-fund-raiser" who was a "DNC trustee of some sort." O'Connor, a Democratic Party treasurer in 1969, raised money during the 1996 election.

O'Connor was not available for comment Tuesday and Wednesday, his office said. Filings in the federal court case state O'Connor sought political donations for Clinton around the same time of his lobbying.

In a sworn deposition, O'Connor testified he spoke to top Democratic fund-raisers in April 1995 about "how many Indians we could get to attend" a presidential fund-raiser.

After Interior's favorable decision, O'Connor and his law partner sent a letter to the tribe urging donations to Clinton, and suggesting the White House had intervened in the casino fight.

"As witnessed in the fight to stop the Hudson Dog Track proposal, the Office of the President can and will work on our behalf when asked to do so," the letter said.

Even after Avent's warnings, Ickes asked staff on three occasions to call Interior to inquire about the pending casino decision.

The first two contacts were prompted by inquiries from O'Connor; the last came in response to a letter from Minnesota lawmakers, records show.

Ickes' aides reported back on May 18 that Interior had made a preliminary decision that the casino was a "bad idea." The following month after the second contact, an aide reported the department was "95% certain" to reject the casino. The last contact prompted a memo saying the decision was imminent.

The department announced its decision on July 14, 1995.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has acknowledged telling a lawyer that Ickes pressed him to make the decision. Babbitt subsequently said there was no pressure and he made the decision "wholly on the merits, without any regard to campaign contributions."

In his deposition, O'Connor detailed how he spoke to Lindsey and Clinton about the casino issue during an event in Minneapolis in April 1995.

"I haven't been able to get anywhere with Loretta (Avent)," O'Connor told Lindsey.

Lindsey told him "I will have someone call you," O'Connor testified. That led to the conference call.

During that conversation, O'Connor became "agitated" that Avent refused to meet with him, said he would contact Fowler at the Democratic National Committee and hung up.

Fowler has said he contacted Ickes as well as the Interior Department about the issue.

Ickes testified he doesn't recall speaking to Fowler. But a letter O'Connor sent to Ickes on May 8, 1995, states: "I have been advised that Chairman Fowler has talked to you about this matter."

Weeks after the announcement, Avent sent Ickes another memo expressing relief she had not gotten involved in the issue, which by then had sparked accusations of political favoritism.

"My instinct on this was right (STAY OUT OF THIS. WHOEVER THE PRESSURE COMES FROM COULDN'T BE WORTH OUR GETTING INVOLVED. I DIDN'T. THANK GOD!)," she wrote in bold letters.

By The Associated Press



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