By David S. Broder and George Lardner Jr.
Babbitt commented in his first face-to-face interview since Attorney General Janet Reno set in motion a process that could lead to an independent counsel investigation of whether he denied the application under pressure from the White House to satisfy competing tribes that had made large contributions to the Democratic National Committee.
"This thing has been investigated to a fare-thee-well. . . . The decision-making process was clear. I wasn't involved in this. I wasn't involved with the White House or with anybody. I was out of the loop," he said.
Babbitt invoked a phrase made famous by then-Vice President George Bush during the 1987 investigation of the Iran-contra affair as he sought to fend off what Justice Department sources have said is a likely decision by Reno to ask for an independent counsel to probe the actions of her Cabinet colleague.
Reno, who has until Feb. 11 to make that decision, announced Monday that the probe would not be widened to include President Clinton.
The casino license, sought by three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes, was opposed by other tribes with rival gaming interests. Those tribes hired a prominent Washington lobbyist, who contacted Clinton and other administration officials and steered more than $300,000 to the Democratic Party.
Reno also is investigating whether Babbitt misled Congress about his role in the affair. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, announced yesterday he would have Babbitt testify for three days in January.
Babbitt's comments came as evidence emerged that the Interior official who decided to reject the casino license had initially allowed his name to go on a draft memo supporting it. A previously undisclosed document obtained by The Washington Post lays out a strong case made by Interior staff members for granting the license.
Babbitt said he was unaware of the document.
In the interview, Babbitt acknowledged many mistakes, saying he had been "careless" and "dumb" in dealing with a lobbyist for the Chippewas and later in describing those conversations to key senators. "It was a dumb letter," he said of the response he sent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denying that he had invoked the name of presidential aide Harold Ickes in a conversation with lobbyist Paul Eckstein. "But it wasn't a violation of law."
Babbitt corrected that 1996 letter in October, shortly before he was called as a witness by the Senate committee investigating whether lobbying of the president and his aides and the delivery of $300,000 in campaign contributions by representatives of tribes opposing the casino influenced the decision to reject the application. His second letter said Eckstein was correct in his "recollection that I said something to the effect that Mr. Ickes wanted a decision."
The interior secretary said that in his 23 years in politics, "I believe this is the first time that there has been a situation like this. . . . It is a really amazing thing that a regulatory decision which was made by the right people using the right process for the right reasons . . . made without any involvement on my part, has become controversial because of the presence of lobbyists who have created by their mixture of lobbying and fund-raising a pretty colorful story.
"That's a pretty volatile mix," the former Arizona governor observed. Babbitt used the interview to respond to several of the key questions left unanswered by his testimony to the Senate committee.
Even though lobbyists were buttonholing Clinton on this issue up to the night before the decision was announced and Ickes aides were asking Babbitt assistants about the pending decision, the secretary insists he was in the dark on all the activity and "not involved in the decision-making process at all."
He was asked: "Nobody on your staff ever indicated to you that they were ever in contact with anybody on the White House staff?"
"No. . . . Those were routine status inquiries and, as such, would not come to my attention."
The decision to reject the application for the off-reservation casino has been explained by several Babbitt aides as an effort by the secretary to make it clear that such requests would not be approved in the face of significant local opposition.
Babbitt said he was involved in "discussions about the overall policy . . . generically with respect to off-reservation gaming," but that "it was not a discussion directly about this application." The general policy was announced months before this case arose, he said.
Michael Anderson, the Bureau of Indian Affairs official who signed the letter of rejection, has told Senate investigators that there were instructions from "upstairs" to get the decision out that day. But Babbitt said, "I don't have any knowledge of what that's about." Anderson later told The Post that the information came to him secondhand, from another mid-level official, and that such instructions were not uncommon.
The Anderson letter said the department was acting under broad discretion given to the secretary to decide whether lands should be added to Indian reservations for any purpose, not just gambling.
Babbitt was asked: "Are we to understand that Anderson said the secretary has chosen to exercise his discretion in this matter without ever asking you whether you wished to do that?"
Babbitt replied: "I certainly never discussed that. As you know, we delegate a lot of discretion in a department this size, and that's an example." At several points in the interview, Babbitt labored to explain the contradictions between his 1996 letter to McCain and his letter last October to Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
He acknowledged that "in retrospect, the letter to Senator McCain adds to the confusion. . . . I didn't intend to deny that I had invoked Ickes' name at all, but in retrospect, I can certainly see how that letter could leave that impression."
Babbitt said he had told his staff accurately, he insists that he had never talked with Ickes about the casino. The staff-drafted letter said he had never raised Ickes' name in the discussion with Eckstein.
"I read it quickly and signed it," Babbitt said. "I didn't change a single word. That's careless. . . . I should have been a lot more thoughtful about that."
As for his belatedly acknowledged comment to Eckstein that the matter was closed because Ickes had asked for a prompt decision, Babbitt insisted, "I made that up out of whole cloth. . . . I wasn't going to give Eckstein what he wanted, and I was kind of looking for an excuse to get this meeting over with. And I simply invoked the name of my superior. . . . It was a dumb thing to do. I just should have said, `This decision's been made. I can't give you any more time.' "
Eckstein, a longtime friend of Babbitt's, hired to lobby him by the applicant tribes, has testified that Babbitt told him of Ickes' timetable early in the conversation and also referred to the big contributions from the opposing tribes. Babbitt said in the interview, as in his Senate testimony, that "I simply don't have any recollection of discussing that subject." Babbitt said he had learned some lessons: "Don't talk to lobbyists, even when you're turning them down. . . . Second, if you're writing a letter to a member of Congress, take it home overnight and read it twice before you sign. . . . [Third] never, however casually, invoke the name of your superiors as a way to . . . sort of soften the impact of saying no.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company