KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon Attorney General Janet Reno said she would seek an independent counsel to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt misled Congress in when he testified in connection with an Indian casino application. Last October, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee made the Indian casino controversy part of its ongoing investigation into campaign fund-raising abuses.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: In late 1993, three small, poor bands of Wisconsin Chippewa Indians applied to have the Department of Interior take land in Hudson, Wisconsin into trust so that the Hudson bands could convert a failing dog track into a casino.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hudson is located on Wisconsin's western border, a half hour drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul. Nearly two years after the three nearby Chippewa Indian tribes asked the Interior Department to approve their casino application, the Department said no.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: On July 14,1995, the political appointees at Interior formally announced the rejection of the application.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the committee's interest in this story involved another group of Indian tribes already operating casinos, including a lucrative one in Green Bay. Those tribes oppose any new casinos. The Interior Department ultimately ruled in their favor and soon after, those tribes contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party. The three Chippewa tribes that lost out had hired a prominent lobbyist Paul Eckstein to argue their case. Eckstein had known Interior Secretary Babbitt for 35 years. They were classmates at Harvard Law School. And Eckstein worked on several of Babbitt's political campaigns.
JACK COBB: Do you consider Secretary Babbitt a friend?
PAUL ECKSTEIN: Yes.
KWAME HOLMAN: Under questioning from Republican Counsel Jack Cobb, Eckstein described a meeting he had with Babbitt on July 14th, 1995, the day the Chippewas' casino application was rejected.
PAUL ECKSTEIN: I went in and explained that we had just heard from Counselor Duffy that the decision was going to be issued that day and it was going to be a denial, and reminded him of the commitment that had been made to make a presentation to him with my clients. And his response was that Harold Ickes had directed him to issue the decision that day. At some point the secretary asked me, "Do you have any idea how much these Indians with gaming contracts have given to Democrats?". And I said, "I don't have the slightest idea." And he said, "Half a million dollars."
KWAME HOLMAN: When Babbitt took his turn before the committee, he admitted he had mentioned the name of then Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes in his conservation with Paul Eckstein--but said he did so only in an attempt to end the conversation.
SEC. BABBITT: I don't recall exactly what was said. But upon reflection, I probably said that Mr. Ickes, the Department's point of contact on many Interior matters, wanted the Department or expected the Department to decide the matter promptly. If I said that, it was an awkward effort to terminate an uncomfortable meeting on a personally sympathetic note. But, as I have said here today, I had no such communication with Mr. Ickes or anyone else from the White House.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Babbitt denied making any comment to Eckstein about contributions made by Indian tribes.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, is it possible that you could have talked about contributions in that conversation by the Indians?
SEC. BABBITT: Senator, I simply have no recollection of any conversation to that effect.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, in requesting an independent counsel, Attorney General Reno asked that the investigation be limited to Babbitt's congressional testimony and whether the casino decision violated any federal criminal law.