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02/11/98- Updated 11:59 PM ET

Babbitt case: A question of truthfulness

WASHINGTON - The investigation of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit is focused on whether he has been truthful with members of Congress about his department's decision to reject a casino proposal from three Chippewa tribes. But in the end it could expand into a broader probe of campaign fund-raising abuses at the White House.

Attorney General Janet Reno asked Wednesday for the help of an independent prosecutor.

The controversy is rooted in a 1994 application by the three tribes and a Miami-based company to turn a 3-year-old Hudson, Wis., dog track into a casino.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Minneapolis recommended in November 1994 that Washington approve the plan despite strong opposition from other tribes.

But Republicans allege that the promise of campaign donations made to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) influenced the decision to reject the application. Babbitt denies the charge.

The timeline of events:

  • Between May 1995 and November 1996, tribes opposing the casino and their lobbyists donated more than $300,000 to the DNC.
  • In July 1995, Babbitt met with law school classmate Paul Eckstein, who was lobbying on behalf of the casino. Eckstein has said that Babbitt told him that White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes was putting pressure on him about the casino. Later that day, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Michael Anderson rejected the casino, citing an earlier recommendation from career civil servant George Skibine.
  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., later questioned Babbitt about whether the casino decision had been influenced by campaign donations. In August 1996, Babbitt sent McCain a letter denying that the White House pressured his department.
  • Last October, Eckstein told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about his 1995 meeting with Babbitt and his comments about pressure from Ickes.
  • In October 1997, the Justice Department task force began investigating whether Babbitt had lied to Congress. Their investigation intensified Oct. 30 when Babbitt went before the same Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and admitted that he had invoked Ickes' name during his meeting with Eckstein. Babbitt said he did so in an "awkward" effort to get Eckstein, a former law partner, out of his office without hurting his feelings. He has reiterated that point on several occasions, saying he he made "a mistake." Babbitt has also said that he never met with or talked with Ickes about the casino.

Although investigators found no evidence that the promise of campaign contributions had influenced the casino decision, Reno said in a letter to the special panel that appoints independent counsels that the task force could not determine if Babbitt had been dishonest during sworn testimony to Congress.

Although Reno has asked for a narrow investigation, Justice officials expect this probe to expand into campaign fund-raising.

By Gary Fields, USA TODAY

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