Babbitt Remains Under The Microscope (11/17/97)
Babbitt Says He Was 'Out Of The Loop' On Casino Decision
Burton's committee wants the Interior secretary to testify on the Indian casino dispute
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Dec. 17) -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could be the next big-name witness to appear before Rep. Dan Burton's House committee looking into the interplay between campaign money and political decision-making.
Burton has announced the panel will call Babbitt, who told The Washington Post he "was out of the loop" and "not involved in the decision-making process at all" on a rejected Indian casino application. Babbitt told the newspaper his subordinates handled White House inquiries about the case and did not bring them to his attention.
"The decision-making process was clear," Babbitt told the Post in an interview in today's editions. "I wasn't involved in this. I wasn't involved with the White House or anybody."
Republicans have accused President Bill Clinton and his aides of engineering the Interior Department's denial of the casino license to three Chippewa tribes who wanted to compete with another Indian gambling operation. Rival tribes opposing the casino donated about $300,000 to the Democratic National Committee and other Democrats.
On Monday, Attorney General Janet Reno rejected Republican requests to include Clinton in her investigation of the casino ruling.
Burton's committee has obtained an undated Interior Department memo written in June 1995 endorsing the Chippewa casino proposal.
The 22-page draft report was written over the name of George T. Skibine, then director of the Indian Gaming Management Staff at Interior, which declared the casino would have "no detrimental impact." Skibine told the Post the memo was written by an aide, though, and he viewed it only as a draft.
In October, a lawyer and longtime political associate of Babbitt testified before Sen. Fred Thompson's committee that Babbitt talked about political contributions when he went to lobby him on the Indian casino permit application. But Babbitt told senators he didn't remember any conversation along those lines.
"At some point, the secretary asked me, 'Do you have any idea how much these Indians, Indians with gaming contracts ... have given to Democrats?'" Paul L. Eckstein quoted Babbitt as saying.
But Babbitt disputed Eckstein's account of the July 14, 1995 meeting. Asked about talk of campaign contributions, Babbitt said, "I have no recollection of any conversation to that effect."
Babbitt also denied that political pressure from either the White House or the Democratic National Committee led the department to reject the proposed casino.
"It [the casino decision] was made in a correct and proper process in every respect," Babbitt said.
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