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Reno Almost Certain To Appoint Counsel To Investigate Babbitt

Interior Secretary's handling of Indian casino draws scrutiny


WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Jan. 16) -- Attorney General Janet Reno is almost certain to appoint an independent counsel to look into allegations against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, CNN has learned.

A final recommendation has not yet been made to Attorney General Janet Reno, but sources tell CNN that Justice Department officials do not believe they can resolve whether Babbitt committed perjury before Congress. At issue is whether he misled Congress about what influence politics may have had on his department's denial of an Indian gambling application.

A lawyer representing Babbitt and an Interior Department spokesman refused comment. "Our reaction is that these are unconfirmed reports, and I don't see any need to respond," Interior Department spokesman Mike Gauldin told CNN.

Gauldin said "this has been going for weeks ... employees trying to corner Janet Reno into making a decision."

Lloyd Cutler, a lawyer representing Babbitt, tells CNN he would have no further comment until an actual decision is reached by Justice Department.

Rep. Dan Burton's House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will hold four hearings over the next two weeks to examine the Indian casino situation. Babbitt is scheduled to testify before the committee Thursday, Jan. 29.

The hearing dates are set for Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 21 and 22, as well as the following week on Jan. 28 and 29. Witness lists have not been released for the first three hearing dates, although a committee source confirms that they will include career Interior Department employees and tribal chairmen. Hearings will begin at 10 a.m. ET each day.

Last fall, the Justice Department opened a 90-day investigation into Babbitt's rejection of three Wisconsin Indian tribes' application to open a new casino. As a Cabinet member, Babbitt is covered under the independent counsel law.

The inquiry centers around a plan by three bands of Wisconsin Chippewas to build a casino at a dog track in Hudson, Wis., a site not on their reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is part of the Interior Department, and the tribes had to obtain a permit from Babbitt before developing the land as a casino.


Three other tribes which operate gambling enterprises -- the St. Croix Chippewa and Oneida of Wisconsin and the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux of Minnesota -- opposed the Hudson casino.

Babbitt rejected the project in July 1995, even though the regional office of the BIA recommended approving the license.

Interior's Gauldin said last year Babbitt's decision was consistent with his past policy in similar situations.

"Since the secretary has been at the department, he has never allowed a tribe to acquire land for a casino off the reservation when the local community was opposed. And the local community in this case was ... opposed," Gauldin said.

But after Babbitt's decision, the three tribes who opposed the casino donated $270,000 to the Democrats. And The Associated Press reported this week that internal documents show the White House contacted the Interior Department three times while the decision was pending.

In an October letter to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Babbitt admitted telling a lawyer for the Chippewa that then-Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes had pressed him to make a decision in this case.

Reno decided in mid-December that no credible evidence existed that President Bill Clinton was involved in any wrongdoing in connection with the Indian casino.

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Friday Jan. 16, 1998

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