An independent counsel said yesterday she will not seek indictments against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt or anyone else involved in the controversial rejection of a proposed Indian gambling casino in Wisconsin, saying she turned up no evidence to support allegations of illegal political interference.
The decision by Carol Elder Bruce followed an 18-month investigation that also focused on whether Babbitt lied to Congress about his role in the department's 1995 rejection of the casino project. Bruce said she concluded that "evidence was insufficient" to prove that Babbitt committed perjury.
Babbitt, one of five Clinton Cabinet appointees to face the scrutiny of independent counsels, repeatedly had denied wrongdoing and spent two days last summer testifying before a grand jury. He has insisted that he was "out of the loop" in discussions about the Hudson, Wis., casino and denied that the White House or Democratic National Committee improperly influenced him.
Saying he was gratified by Bruce's finding that no criminal charges were justified, Babbitt declared, "That is not surprising; as I have said from the beginning, all the employees of the Department of the Interior who participated in the Hudson casino decision acted with complete integrity."
In the aftermath of the expiration of the independent counsel law in June, Bruce's decision not only removed a cloud over Babbitt but symbolized that an era of probes into the Clinton White House and Cabinet is winding down.
President Clinton issued a statement expressing his satisfaction: "As I said at the beginning of this inquiry, Bruce Babbitt is a man of the highest integrity, and I was convinced that he would be vindicated."
The controversies stemmed from a plan by Croixland Properties Inc. and three Chippewa tribes to install an off-reservation casino on the site of a failing greyhound track. Other tribes, which opposed the project because they believed it would cut into their own gambling profits, contributed more than $350,000 to Democrats during the 1996 campaign.
The probe resulted in part from a meeting Babbitt had in July 1995 with an Arizona lawyer who was pressing him to approve the gambling license. Babbitt later acknowledged in Senate testimony that he essentially told a white lie to end the meeting by claiming that Harold Ickes, then White House deputy chief of staff, had told him a decision on the casino needed to be made that day.
In a statement, Bruce said the evidence "would not support a finding of a criminal `quid pro quo' -- an explicit agreement between any opponent of the casino application and any government official involved in the Hudson decision to perform an official act in exchange for a political contribution."
Bruce said her office interviewed more than 450 witnesses and reviewed more than 630,000 pages of documents before reaching a decision. A source familiar with the investigation said Bruce likely will submit a report by year's end to the three-judge panel that appointed her. Despite Bruce's finding that the facts did not justify any prosecution, the report could prove embarrassing to the administration.
A former federal prosecutor, Bruce has worked in relative anonymity, aided by lawyers and FBI investigators. In contrast to other independent counsels, Bruce did not make any public statements during the probe.
Yesterday's developments will not put the casino matter to rest, however, given that partners in the casino project have filed a civil suit challenging the Interior Department's decision. Their spokesman, Mark Goff, said attorneys have begun settlement talks.
"I think we all are relieved to find there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the decision," Goff said.
All told, independent counsels have spent more than $87 million investigating various Clinton administration officials during the past five years. Bruce had spent nearly $3.9 million on her investigation as of last March 31, according to the General Accounting Office. Under the independent counsel statute, targets who are not indicted can seek to recover their legal costs, and Babbitt will likely do so.
Other investigations involved former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, acquitted last year on corruption charges; former housing secretary Henry Cisneros, who pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor charge; former commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, who died in an airplane crash in April 1996; and Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, who remains under investigation into allegations of influence-peddling.
Independent counsel Ralph I. Lancaster Jr. has been presenting evidence in the Herman case to a grand jury. Kenneth W. Starr's office has continuing probes, including a review of the White House travel office firings.