Reno extends campaign probe to Babbitt

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno on Thursday extended a probe of whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt improperly let politics influence a decision about an Indian casino license, a court order said.

Reno notified the special court overseeing appointment of independent counsels that she had opened a 90-day preliminary inquiry to determine whether a special prosecutor is needed to investigate Babbitt's handling of the decision to reject the proposed casino.

An order granted Reno permission to publicly "disclose the notification of preliminary investigation in this matter, which concerns allegations which have been widely reported by the news media."

Earlier, Babbitt spokesman Mike Gauldin had said an extended review was pretty inevitable.

"We would be real surprised if they don't proceed. The threshold for going ahead is real low. The threshold for stopping is real high," Gauldin said. "It would be really surprising to us if they don't go ahead and take extra time and do extra looking."

For the past 30 days, Justice Department prosecutors have reviewed allegations that political pressure brought by Minnesota and Wisconsin Indian tribes opposing the casino improperly influenced the Interior Department's decision to deny permission to three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes to build a casino at a dog track near the Minnesota state line.

Babbitt testified at Senate campaign fund-raising hearings last month that politics played no role in the department's decision.

But a lobbyist for the losing tribes, Paul F. Eckstein, testified that Babbitt told him deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes ordered a decision on the issue without delay.

Eckstein, a former law partner of Babbitt, said he met with his old friend to make an 11th-hour appeal on behalf of the Chippewa tribes.

Eckstein quoted Babbitt as asking him if he knew Indian tribes had given $500,000 to the Democratic Party. Babbitt told the committee he had "no recollection" of making the comment.

Babbitt said he mentioned Ickes' name simply to get Eckstein to leave his office. Babbitt testified that he was simply telling Eckstein that Ickes expected him to make decisions.

The winning tribes had lobbied hard against the proposed casino, fearing that it would compete with their own gaming operations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. They lined up a politicians in both Wisconsin and Minnesota to oppose the plan as well.

One lobbyist, Patrick J. O'Connor, spoke to President Clinton and White House aide Bruce Lindsey at an April 1995 fund-raising event in Minneapolis. O'Connor also enlisted support from Donald L. Fowler, then Democratic Party chairman.

The opposing tribes eventually ended up donating $286,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Most of the money was donated after the July 14, 1995, decision.

A datebook O'Connor turned over to Senate investigators shows that the day the Interior Department rejected the gambling casino, the lobbyist made a note to himself to follow up with Ickes and Fowler to initiate "fund-raising strategies."

Documents show that aides to Ickes contacted the Interior Department three times about the status of the casino decision despite warnings by presidential advisers that White House involvement in the decision would be "political poison."

By The Associated Press

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