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A Lobbyist's Lucrative Ties (Oct. 17)

White House Seeks to Keep Indian Casino Memos Secret

By George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 1997; Page A02

The White House yesterday claimed executive and other privileges to keep secret notes and memos to and from President Clinton and White House aides surrounding the 1995 denial of a gambling casino license for three impoverished Wisconsin Indian tribes.

The first memo, addressed to then-deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes, was dated April 24, 1995, the day the top lobbyist for casino-rich tribes opposing the license spoke to Clinton and his adviser Bruce Lindsey about the issue at a reception in Minneapolis. At the time, regional officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had recommended approval of the license by the Interior Department.

Lawyers for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Madison, Wis., submitted a summary of the memo to Ickes and nine other Clinton White House documents to a federal judge who held last March that "there is a distinct possibility that improper political influence affected" the Interior Department's rejection of the casino application on July 14, 1995.

The White House records were located as an outgrowth of the litigation, filed by the three losing Chippewa tribes against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and three other officials in his chain of command.

Babbitt acknowledged last week that he told an old colleague, Paul Eckstein, on July 14, 1995, that he had been pressed by Ickes to make a decision on the off-reservation casino that day. But Babbitt said he came up with the excuse only because Eckstein, who had been hired by the unsuccessful Chippewa, was "extremely persistent" and "I used this phrase simply as a means of terminating the discussion and getting him out the door."

Babbitt last year denied making any such statement. In a deposition last month for the Senate committee investigating the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, Eckstein also said Babbitt asked him whether he knew how much "these tribes," presumably those opposing the casino, had given to Democrats or to the Democratic National Committee.

"I said I don't have the slightest idea," Eckstein recounted. "And he [Babbitt] responded by saying, `Well, it's on the order of a half-million dollars,' something like that."

Babbitt did not address this point in last week's statement to the Senate committee chairman, Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.). The secretary has said the decision to overrule the regional BIA office was based on the merits of the case, not politics.

Copies of the April 24, 1995, memo to Ickes, written by a special White House assistant for intergovernmental affairs, went to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff Margaret A. Williams and the White House counsel's office. The summary described it as a discussion of "legal advice" and "American Indian gaming policy matters" and said it was covered by the attorney-client privilege, the deliberative process privilege and "work product protection."

Another April 24, 1995, memo on "legal advice" and "American Indian gaming policy matters" went from the White House Office of Policy Development to the White House counsel's office with copies to two high-ranking Clinton assistants and another staff member in the first lady's office.

Two days later, the opposing tribes' chief lobbyist, Patrick O'Connor, sent a letter to Ickes that mentioned "my discussions with the President and Bruce Lindsey on April 24" and thanked Ickes for two follow-up calls. A former DNC official and prominent Democratic fund-raiser, O'Connor added that he had an April 28 appointment with DNC Chairman Donald L. Fowler for himself and chairmen of five of "the many Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes" opposing the Chippewa casino.

Fowler has acknowledged making phone calls to Ickes about the matter and then to "someone at Interior." There are also records of phone calls by Ickes' aides to Interior.

The opposing tribes donated more than $300,000 to the DNC and Minnesota's Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, most of it after the Chippewa application was turned down.

Executive privilege was invoked for a note in the fall of 1996 from Clinton to then-Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta on the "Hudson casino matter" and for a memo from the chief of staff back to Clinton dated Oct. 23, 1996, on the "status of Hudson casino litigation." Two other withheld White House memos were dated Oct. 22 and 23.

"There seems to have been a flurry of activity in the fall of 1996, right in the thick of the election," said Mark Goff, a spokesman for the rejected Chippewa. He said the Shakopee Sioux, the wealthiest of the opposing tribes thanks to a 300,000-square-foot casino, contributed $50,000 to the DNC in that period, half of it on Oct. 7 and half on Oct. 9.

A White House official, citing the ongoing litigation, referred questions to the Justice Department.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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