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Reno Calls For Independent Counsel In Babbitt Probe

Babbitt says he's disappointed in the decision; Rep. Burton says the scope of proposed inquiry is too narrow

By Terry Frieden and Pierre Thomas/CNN


WASHINGTON (Feb. 11) -- Attorney General Janet Reno announced her decision Wednesday to call for an independent counsel investigation of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his handling of a casino license application.

The Special Division of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington will almost certainly appoint the outside counsel, but the appointment is not expected to come for several days. The panel is expected to approve Reno's recommendation for jurisdiction in the case.

In a statement, Babbitt said he was disappointed in Reno's decision and his lawyers have told him what occurred "can't possibly form the basis of any legal charges."

Reno's senior staff members had recommended she seek the independent counsel and Reno almost always follows their recommendations.

Reno's request calls for a limited investigation to determine whether Babbitt violated federal criminal law and misled Congress during his appearance before a Senate committee last fall.

Reno also wants the special prosecutor to examine if White House politics might have played a role in the Interior department's decision to block the Indian gambling license.

The attorney general made clear, though, the independent counsel who is appointed can pursue other potential targets.

"The Independent Counsel shall have jurisdiction to investigate related allegations or evidence of any violation of federal criminal law, by any individual or organization, as necessary to resolve the matter," Reno said in a statement.

Reno also called for any obstruction of justice or material false statement or testimony arising from the new investigation to be pursued.

In his written statement, Babbitt said, "The Interior Department's decision was the right one, made on the merits for the right reasons. Those who made the decision have testified unanimously that that they were not influenced by improper political pressure.

"This is a disagreement between two people about the exact words spoken in a meeting they had alone two years ago," Babbitt said. "We've each told our version and we disagree. There's nothing else to say about it. My attorneys say it can't possibly form the basis of any legal charges.

"If it's true that only an independent counsel can resolve a matter like this if it involves a cabinet secretary, then I think the list of hidden costs one has to pay for public service has just grown a little longer.

"I've spent 23 years of public service without a blemish on my reputation," Babbitt added. "While this investigation proceeds, I intend to continue my work as Secretary of the Interior to further the Clinton Administration's goals for the American people -- protecting wildlife, habitat, public lands, National Parks, historic preservation, endangered species, Indian welfare, water resources, natural sciences and minerals management."

President Bill Clinton praised his Interior secretary and expressed confidence in the inquiry's outcome.

"I have known Bruce Babbitt for many years," Clinton said in a statement. "He is a man of the highest integrity and a dedicated public servant. I am convinced that when this matter is concluded he will be vindicated. I look forward to his continuing service to the American people."

Rep. Burton criticizes inquiry's scope

But Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said he was disappointed that Reno chose a narrow scope for the inquiry into Babbitt's role in the casino license dispute.

"I think it's a terrible mistake," Rep. Burton said during a Capitol news conference Wednesday.

"I think the Attorney General once again appears to be trying to protect the White House and the inhabitants thereof," Burton said. "I think that's wrong. There should be a full-blown investigation, there should be no question about it, no holds barred, and if Mr. Babbitt and the people at the Interior Department are innocent, it will be proven."

Burton acknowledged the independent counsel will have the ability to ask for an expansion of his authority, but Reno could deny it. The counsel could go to a three-judge panel of federal judges and ask that his investigation be expanded.

Burton said that by limiting the mandate of an independent counsel, "it's like an admission that there's something they don't want to look into."

"It appears to me that once again the attorney general is standing like Horatio at the bridge, trying to protect the administration," Burton said.

The investigation focues on a 1995 Interior Department denial of a Chippewa tribe's efforts to transform a Wisconsin dog track into a casino. After that rejection, owners from competing Indian casinos gave almost $300,000 in donations to the Democrats.

Babbitt, who has said his 23-year public service career is on the line, has flatly denied politics played any part in his department's decision.

This marks the fifth time Reno has requested an independent counsel to investigate a top Clinton Administration official, and the first looking into a matter arising from 1996 campaign fund-raising.

The scope of the independent investigation is critical because many of the same players in the ongoing congressional investigation of Democratic fund-raising have been mentioned in the Babbitt probe.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler testified that when casino lobbyists contacted him, he took the matter straight to the White House. Fowler said he contacted then-White House chief of staff Harold Ickes.

Ickes said he recalled having only one phone conversation with Babbitt regarding the situation.

Lobbyist Paul Eckstein testified Babbitt told him of high-level White House pressure for a quick decision on the casino application.

The Attorney General told the three-judge panel her investigation to date has determined "there is specific and credible evidence indicating that Secretary Babbitt may have testified falsely about the reference to Harold Ickes he made during his conversation with Eckstein on July 14, 1995."

Reno said, "Although the precise extent of the conflict between Babbitt and Eckstein is a matter of interpretation, it is my conclusion that Secretary Babbitt's description of the remark as a general reference to what Ickes 'wanted' or 'expected,' when read in context, conflicts with sworn statements and testimony by Eckstein that the secretary made a specific statement that Ickes had 'called' and 'directed' that the decision be made that day."

Reno said under the Independent Counsel Act she needs only to conclude that Eckstein's testimony is sufficiently specific and credible to warrant further investigation. Reno leaves it to whomever the panel chooses to appoint to resolve the conflict.

Babbitt contends anything he said was just to get Eckstein out of his office.

Reno's announcement came less than a month after Reno expanded Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr's probe of allegations involving the president and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Reno concluded in December there was no credible evidence Clinton himself acted improperly in the casino matter.

CNN's Ann Curley contributed to this report.
In Other News

Wednesday February 11, 1998

Reno Calls For Independent Counsel In Babbitt Probe
Monica Lewinsky Won't Testify Before Next Week
Starr's Law Firm Begins An Inquiry
Report: Retired Secret Service Guard Saw Clinton, Lewinsky Alone
White House Scandal At A Glance
Reno Meets With Thompson, Glenn

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