Babbitt Forcefully Denies Wrongdoing In Casino Decision
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Jan. 29) -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt angrily defended his integrity Thursday at a House hearing looking into a controversy over a proposed Indian casino.
Babbitt told the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that politics played no part in his department's decision to reject the casino proposal. "Political affiliation should have nothing to do with a decision like this and it didn't," he said.
"Campaign contributions should have nothing to do with a decision like this and they didn't. A personal relationship with the secretary of the Interior should have nothing to do with a decision like this and it didn't," Babbitt said.
The casino decision is yet another piece of the campaign finance scandal. Babbitt is accused of caving to White House fund-raising pressures when his department said no to a casino proposal from three Chippewa Indian tribes. The casino was proposed to replace a failed dog track near Hudson, Wis.
A lobbyist representing the tribes charges that rival tribes with strong connections to the Democratic Party and deep pockets prevailed on the White House to stop the casino. The rival tribes have a separate gaming enterprise in nearby Minnesota.
Local opposition killed the project, according to the Interior secretary.
Babbitt called the allegations facing his department a "conspiracy theory worthy of Oliver Stone" concocted by those with "a vested financial interest in this matter."
"Efforts to obscure the truth will not and cannot change the facts," Babbitt said. "The fact is that the decision in the Hudson casino matter was firmly grounded in the law, it was consistent with department practice and based on the merits of the case. The fact is it was the right decision made in the right way and for the right reasons," Babbitt said.
Committee chairman Dan Burton argued that there was evidence of misdeeds. A federal judge "found considerable evidence of improper political interference," he said.
"The Interior Department's own lawyers said that they didn't follow their own procedures and recommended settling the case. Two of the secretary's top aides left the department for very lucrative jobs representing the tribes who benefitted from the decision yet some of my colleagues here today say that there is no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing. I find that amazing," Burton said.
Babbitt, a two-term Arizona governor, a 1988 presidential primary candidate and a long-time conservationist, admitted during testimony he had muddied the waters by making contradictory remarks earlier in the investigation.
He has had two different stories about the case. The Interior secretary first denied but later acknowledged telling the Chippewa tribes' lobbyist that White House officials wanted him to dispose of the case.
Babbitt says he told lobbyist and longtime friend Paul Eckstein about administration pressures just to try to cut short their conversation.
Meanwhile, the Chippewa tribe application having been denied, the rival tribes contributed a quarter of a million dollars to the Democratic Party's 1996 efforts.
Babbitt is the focus of a preliminary justice department investigation which concludes early next month. It's possible that Attorney General Janet Reno could appoint an independent counsel to the case at that point.
CNN's Louise Schiavone contributed to this report.