WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Thursday denied allegations that his agency bowed to political pressure and rejected a proposed Indian gambling casino opposed by tribes that donated to the Democratic National Committee.
"The allegations that there was improper White House or DNC influence and that I was a conduit for that influence are demonstrably false," Babbitt told senators investigating campaign fund-raising abuses.
Babbitt denied he ever spoke to Harold Ickes, then the deputy White House chief of staff, or to "anyone else at the White House or at the DNC" about the issue.
The highest ranking Clinton administration official yet to testify at the Senate hearings, Babbitt said: "I did not direct my subordinates to reach any particular decision on this matter."
A lawyer for Indian tribes that claim political pressure killed their proposed gambling casino testified earlier that Babbitt told him Ickes ordered a decision without delay.
Paul Eckstein, an old Arizona friend of Babbitt, told lawmakers that he met with Babbitt on July 14, 1995, after being told by another Interior Department official that the casino planned by three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes was being disapproved.
"His response was that Harold Ickes had directed him to issue the decision that day," Eckstein told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The panel examined allegations that $286,000 eventually given to the Democratic Party by rival tribes influenced the Clinton administration's decision to reject the proposed gambling casino 20 miles from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. The rival tribes were trying to prevent competition to their lucrative gambling interests.
Babbit has made conflicting statements about the episode in letters to Congress about his meeting with Eckstein. The interior secretary denied making the comment about Ickes in a 1996 letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. This month he said he made the remark to Eckstein simply to get the lawyer out of his office.
"It is my recollection I may well have said to him Mr. Ickes expects me to make a decision," Babbitt testified Thursday. But Babbitt said the comment "was just an awkward effort to terminate an uncomfortable meeting on a personally sympathetic note."
"But as I have said here today, I had no such communication with Mr. Ickes or anyone else at the White House," Babbitt said.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the panel's chairman, said the contradictions in Babbitt's statements were "just as troubling" as allegations that the Interior Department succumbed to political pressure by tribes that had hired former Democratic Party treasurer Patrick O'Connor to lobby against the plan.
Donald L. Fowler, then the Democratic Party chairman, also lobbied administration officials for tribes opposing the casino.
There is no direct evidence the White House pressured the agency. But aides to Ickes twice asked the Interior Department for a status report on the casino decision after receiving queries from O'Connor, who personally lobbied President Clinton, according to memos by presidential aides.
The memos show that the White House knew two months before the decision that the Interior Department was likely to reject the proposal.
Attorney General Janet Reno confirmed Thursday that the Justice Department was conducting a 30-day review to determine if there was evidence of wrongdoing to warrant appointment of an independent counsel.
Prosecutors have already interviewed Heather Sibbison, a special assistant to Babbitt who was contacted by Ickes aides, said Stephanie Hanna, a spokesman for the Interior Department.
The White House contacts were made despite warnings from other presidential advisers that White House involvement in the issue would be "political poison," according to one aide's memo.
Eckstein, who had headed Babbitt's 1982 gubernatorial campaign in Arizona, challenged his old friend's assertion that the Ickes comment was made to get him to leave the office "because it was at the very beginning of the conversation."
"I was in his office a very long time" after Ickes made the remark, Eckstein said.
Eckstein also testified that Babbitt asked him if he knew Indian tribes had given $500,000 to the Democratic Party.
"It wasn't clear to me whether he was referring to Indian tribes generally, tribes with gambling contracts. But three things were clear, it involved Indians giving money to Democrats in the figure of $500,000," Eckstein said.
"I was disappointed" in the comment, Eckstein said, which came "immediately after" they had discussed a May 8 letter O'Connor had sent to Ickes to push his clients' opposition. O'Connor's letter had noted that opposing tribes had given money to Clinton's 1992 campaign.
Although Babbitt didn't directly say he had read O'Connor's letter, "he seemed to know" about it, Eckstein said. Based on Babbitt's body language, it was clear "he had familiarity with it," the witness added.
In a statement prepared for the committee, Babbitt said he "had no recollection" of making the comment about tribal political donations.
A copy of Ickes' letter has turned up in the Interior Departments files on the issue that are open for public inspection.
Ickes told the committee he never pressured Babbitt on the issue, saying, "Nobody ever tells Bruce Babbitt what to do."
By The Associated Press
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