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01/29/98- Updated 01:46 AM ET

Tribes billed for fund-raiser meetings

WASHINGTON - A lawyer who successfully lobbied against a proposed Indian gambling casino for rival tribes acknowledged Wednesday that he billed clients for meeting with top Democratic Party fund-raisers.

Patrick J. O'Connor, retained by one of the Indian tribes opposing the casino sought for a Hudson, Wis., dog track, also told House hearings that he asked fund-raiser Terence McAuliffe and Donald L. Fowler, then the party's chairman, for help getting a meeting with presidential aide Harold Ickes about the issue.

"I was hoping Mr. Ickes would give us a meeting, hopefully he would make an inquiry" at the Interior Department and tell officials there that "people have approached me and feel you are not focusing on their opposition" to the casino, O'Connor testified.

Although he never met with Ickes, O'Connor personally lobbied President Clinton on the issue, speaking to him briefly at an April 24, 1995, fund-raiser in Minneapolis. Law firm billing records show that one of O'Connor's partners also discussed the casino plan with the president several weeks later at a fund-raiser.

Billing records from his law firm showed O'Connor charged the St. Croix Tribe for attending a March 15, 1995, meeting with Fowler and Truman Arnold, then the party's finance chairman.

O'Connor said he billed clients for fund raising "if I was of the opinion it would be helpful to the client."

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee is investigating whether political pressure improperly influenced the Interior Department's July 14, 1995, decision to reject the casino plan proposed by three impoverished bands of Wisconsin Chippewas.

Tribes that opposed the casino because it would compete with their gambling operations eventually donated $286,000 to the DNC.

The White House and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is scheduled to testify Thursday, have denied that politics played any role in the decision. But the Justice Department is reviewing whether an independent counsel should investigate Babbitt's role, particularly conflicting statements he made to the Senate.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the panel's chairman, said he was troubled by O'Connor's contacts with DNC officials. "What was the purpose of you talking to the DNC about this ... at all?"

Democrats argued that panel investigators had failed to show that the decision was the result of any promised political donations or help raising money.

"From your own personal knowledge, do you have any reason to believe that the Department of Interior's decision was made because of campaign contributions?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

"No," O'Connor replied. "I failed to talk to Mr. Ickes. I tried. But I never talked to him."

O'Connor says he asked for McAuliffe's help when he was trying to raise $1,000 apiece from 50 Indians to help Clinton's re-election effort. McAuliffe later headed Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.

But O'Connor said he never asked anyone involved in the fund raising, "Will you see this application is denied?"

Last week, the dog track's owner testified that McAuliffe bragged at a fund-raiser that he used his political influence to help kill the project, a statement vehemently denied by McAuliffe's lawyer, Richard Ben-Veniste.

After the hearing Wednesday, Ben-Veniste said McAuliffe denied discussing "with O'Connor, anyone at the Interior Department or anyone at the DNC anything about this casino issue. ... He never spoke with Harold Ickes about this matter."

Billing records showed that one of O'Connor's partners, Thomas Schneider, reported by phone "that he talked to President Clinton regarding status of matter."

Schneider, who hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton at his home the night before the Interior Department announced its decision, told committee investigators he only spoke to Ickes, but not Clinton, about the issue.

But another law partner, Thomas J. Corcoran, told investigators that

Schneider told him of his conversation with Clinton, said a House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Corcoran told investigators that Schneider recalled sharing a laugh with Clinton over the fact they were discussing a dog track.

A former Democratic Party treasurer, O'Connor couldn't recall what was discussed at the March 15, 1995, meeting with Fowler and Arnold. But he conceded he may have asked Fowler for help setting up the meeting with Ickes.

The meeting took place the same day O'Connor met with Tom Collier, Babbitt's chief of staff, about the casino issue, according to the billing records.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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