Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt yesterday completed a second full day of testimony before a grand jury investigating allegations that he lied to Congress about the rejection of a proposed Indian gambling casino in Wisconsin.
Babbitt's appearance came as independent counsel Carol Elder Bruce moved toward wrapping up the fact-finding phase of her 15-month investigation. She has said she hopes to reach a conclusion soon about possible indictments.
From the start, Babbitt has said that he would cooperate with Bruce's investigation, and he has denied any wrongdoing in the casino matter. He voluntarily appeared before the grand jury at the federal courthouse in Washington on June 30 and returned yesterday for what he called the conclusion of his testimony. Bruce herself led the prosecution team, as she had last week.
"I came to answer all their questions. I was happy to do so," Babbitt said as he left the courthouse. "It was a very professional atmosphere."
Bruce left the courthouse without comment, as did Stephen H. Sachs, an attorney representing Babbitt. The grand jury has been hearing evidence in the case for at least eight months. Sources familiar with the investigation said that Bruce and her staff have conducted hundreds of interviews.
Babbitt declined to predict when the investigation will end or talk about specifics in the probe, which was triggered by allegations surrounding the Interior Department's 1995 rejection of plans for a casino in Hudson, Wis.
Croixland Properties Inc. and three impoverished Chippewa tribes had proposed to install an off-reservation casino at a money-losing greyhound track. Regional officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended approval, but higher-ups rejected the application.
Among other things, Bruce is seeking to determine if the White House or the Democratic National Committee improperly influenced the decision. Other tribes, which were opposed to the project because they believed it would cut into their own gambling profits, contributed more than $350,000 to Democrats for the 1996 campaign. Babbitt has said he was "out of the loop" on the issue.
In addition to the independent counsel investigation, there is a pending federal court suit by the rejected tribes, seeking to overturn the Interior Department's decision. Bruce recently asked that the suit be delayed for 60 days, saying she feared its moving forward could hinder her probe. In a letter that became part of the court file, she said her office was in the "final, critical stage" of its investigation and needed more time.
Babbitt is due back at the courthouse on Friday to testify in an unrelated matter. He will be a government witness in the trial of a civil suit that alleges the Interior Department has mismanaged Indian trust funds.