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Accused Of Loading The Dice

By Fred Hiatt
Friday, October 27, 1997; Page A25

Harold Ickes, President Clinton's top first-term political operative, was testifying earlier this month to the Senate committee investigating campaign scandals, and he seemed miffed to be questioned about a dog track in Hudson, Wis.

"Senator," he lectured Susan Collins of Maine, "I had a lot of responsibilities in the West Wing as deputy chief of staff." The issue she kept picking at, he said, "was not a big deal."

Well, you wouldn't think so. And yet, if the fate of a failing dog track in western Wisconsin was too trivial for Ickes, you have to ask why Clinton himself got involved; why Clinton's confidant, Bruce Lindsey, felt strongly enough to make a call to the White House about it from Air Force One; and why Ickes' staff, despite explicit ethical warnings to the contrary from White House advisers, apparently followed up on the matter so diligently. You have to wonder, in other words, whether $300,000 or so in campaign donations didn't make it something of a big deal, after all.

The unfolding campaign-money scandals are so convoluted and diffuse, and the law so uncertain, that it's sometimes hard to know whether to react with outrage or a shrug. So it's useful, sometimes, to pick just one strand of this braided affair and try to follow it to its end. The case of the Hudson dog track may not involve any illegalities. But if a Chicago alderman were involved, we'd know just what to call it.

Hudson is a small exurb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, just across the St. Croix river from Minnesota. Its dog track opened in 1991 but began losing out almost from the start to Indian casinos in the Twin Cities. The track's Florida owner got the idea of teaming up with three impoverished Wisconsin tribes to run a casino of their own.

In December 1992 Hudson voters approved the idea in a special referendum and by November 1994, the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had sent the matter to Washington with a recommendation for approval. The Wisconsin tribes, based on precedent, expected clear sailing from there.

But Minnesota tribes making tens of millions from their casinos didn't want the competition, and they hired, among others, Patrick J. O'Connor, a former Democratic Party treasurer, to get the project stopped. On April 24, 1995, O'Connor managed to position himself in a Clinton receiving line in Minneapolis. He raised the casino issue; Clinton referred him to Lindsey; Lindsey made his call from Air Force One.

Whatever Lindsey said, according to Senate investigators, set off alarm bells in the White House, where at least some aides recognized the Indian application as a quasi-judicial proceeding that should be beyond the reach of politics. A presidential adviser on Indian affairs, Loretta Avent, warned in a memo that day that "the legal and political implications of our involvement would be disastrous." Another adviser, Michael T. Schmidt, was more categorical: "We legally cannot intervene with the secretary of Interior on this issue," he wrote.

Clear enough? Apparently not. Staffers in Ickes' office began contacting officials in the Interior Department, where the final decision would be made. So did Don Fowler, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who has described O'Connor as "a friend of mine for some years."

O'Connor and his clients visited Fowler on April 28. When Collins later asked whether Fowler and O'Connor discussed political contributions in relation to the dog-track decision, Fowler replied, "I don't recall any specific conversation with him that had any relationship to this particular set of events."

One participant, though, had a more specific recollection. Tribal leader Lewis Taylor said in a court deposition that he told Fowler during the meeting that "we needed help . . . and therefore I think we should donate. . . . " O'Connor also drew the connection to money, reminding Ickes in a May 8 letter of his clients' "previous financial support" of Democrats and Clinton-Gore.

Memos reveal follow-up communications between Ickes' aides and Interior on May 18 and again on June 6. But if there was political pressure to block the casino application, Interior's nonpolitical staff wasn't caving; on June 8, they recommended approval, just as had the regional office.

But that didn't end the story. Somehow, during the next 20 days, the green light turned red, as the monied Minnesota tribes wanted. "What happened during this 20-day stretch?" a federal judge, Barbara B. Crabb, asked in a ruling last year. "There is considerable evidence that suggests that improper political pressure may have influenced agency decision-making."

On June 27 Interior officials delivered to Ada Deer, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a draft letter rejecting the Wisconsin application. Deer refused to sign it for reasons still murky, but on July 14, Interior officially turned it down anyhow.

By this time, the Wisconsin supplicants had hired lobbyists of their own – a former congressman and Paul Eckstein, a longtime friend of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Eckstein demanded an explanation – why not even seek consultation (as had been done in the past) to see if the warring tribes could work things out? Babbitt replied that he couldn't postpone the decision; Ickes had given him a deadline. And Babbitt added, "Do you know how much these tribes have given to the Democratic Party? It's something like half a million dollars."

That, at least, is Eckstein's recollection, as given in depositions. Babbitt at first (last year) denied saying anything of the kind. Now he acknowledges that he cited Ickes to Eckstein – but maintains that he was just making up a story to get Eckstein out of his office.

The contributions to the Democratic Party – state and national – were by this time rolling in from the victorious tribes and their agents: May 13, June 30, Sept. 15 and on into 1996 – $273,000 or more.

Fowler testified that there was no connection between the money and his involvement. Babbitt has written that the decision was based purely on the merits of the case – mostly local opposition, from surrounding tribes, and in an 11th-hour switch, the Hudson town council. White House aides point out that Democratic congressmen were lobbying against the casino too. And Ickes said that "if you give enough money to Republican senators, you'll get access too."

In this case, though, more than access was at stake. Contributors to the party managed, the losing tribes allege, to overturn a specific agency decision with specific financial ramifications for them.

Those losing tribes filed suit, alleging improper political influence; the case has yet to go to trial. And who's defending the government and seeking to limit the Wisconsin tribes' ability to gather information? Janet Reno's Justice Department – the same folks who are, ostensibly, investigating this whole mess.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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