IT IS HARD to think of a better example of the much-derided and now defunct independent counsel law working as it was intended than the investigation of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Carol Elder Bruce, the independent counsel named last year to investigate Mr. Babbitt, announced Wednesday that she would close her probe without indicting him or anyone else.
Ms. Bruce was asked to investigate a matter that had been dogging Mr. Babbitt for months: his testimony concerning an allegation that the White House had interfered in an Interior Department decision regarding whether or not a group of Wisconsin Indians should have a casino venture approved. The White House had been approached by other tribes opposing the venture, tribes which later donated large sums to the Democratic Party. The evidence that this was some sort of quid pro quo was always scant, but Mr. Babbitt had made contradictory statements to Congress regarding the matter. The mess was referred to Ms. Bruce to see whether the secretary had made any prosecutably false statements.
Ms. Bruce's investigation has proceeded almost entirely silently since she was named. When the inquiry was launched, the casino matter was effectively erased from the news, which allowed Mr. Babbitt to get on with his job. Though Ms. Bruce took a year and a half to complete her work and had some people wondering what she was up to during that time, she seems never to have disrupted his work in doing her own. Most important, her conclusion that the evidence "would not support a finding of a criminal `quid pro quo' " and that there was "insufficient evidence to prove that Secretary Babbitt violated the statutes prohibiting perjury and false statements in his Senate testimony" should put to rest the question of Mr. Babbitt's role once and for all.
We have long suspected that at the end of the day there would be no indictments to file in this matter. The casino mess was surely not Mr. Babbitt's finest moment, but it never had the feel of a case worthy of indictments or the destruction of his career. The extent to which Ms. Bruce's findings constitute true vindication or represent a mere conclusion that Mr. Babbitt's conduct was, however bad, not prosecutable will become clearer when her final report is made public. But Ms. Bruce's credible and serious probe -- conducted with a healthy dose of discretion -- has helped clear the air about a fine public servant. That is good for Mr. Babbitt, and it is also a timely reminder of the independent counsel law's good side.
All of which is not to say that the casino mess was not, after all, a problem. We will learn the details when Ms. Bruce's report comes out, but the absence of a criminal quid pro quo does not make this unseemly spectacle forgivable -- though the culprit may well not have been Mr. Babbitt. The fact is that the tribes opposing the casino project saw massive contributions to the Democratic Party as a ticket to access and success with the administration. If these contributions didn't provoke the decision, they at least created a serious retroactive appearance problem that required a criminal investigation to sort out. The casino incident is precisely the sort of mess of money and politics that senators ought to keep in mind as they consider banning soft money once and for all.