By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The lead story in the June 9 Washington Times was a bombshell. Under a page-one banner headline boldly proclaiming, "Casinos Checked Out Babbitt, His Denials of Gambling Don't Fit Record," Washington Times reporter Jerry Seper gave Washingtonians something to chew on with their morning coffee, as he recounted the lurid details of what looked like the country's next big political scandal.
Bruce Babbitt, then the leading candidate for a post on the United States Supreme Court and the current secretary of the Department of the Interior, had been the subject of "credit checks" run by four Las Vegas casinos in 1976. The checks, the story said, were made during a period when Babbitt reportedly had run up "substantial" gambling debts in Vegas casinos--some of which were allegedly recorded on "markers," or IOUs, kept in the vaults of the Dunes Hotel.
Seper wrote that although Babbitt claimed he had never been involved in gambling and had never visited the casinos, a former Las Vegas police supervisor--tracked down in retirement by the diligent reporter--remembered that several of his officers had actually watched Arizona's former attorney general and governor gamble at the Dunes "every six to nine months" between 1979 and 1982. The combination of the documented credit checks and the eyewitness testimony seemed to make a strong case that Babbitt was lying about his debts, as well as possible ties to organized crime.
The story also noted that Babbitt had been accused in 1976 of accepting a "mob payoff" to cover large gambling debts while he was Arizona's attorney general. Adding diabolical mystery to the mix, the payoff was said to have been uncovered in the process of the investigation into the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
Seper added that law enforcement continued to probe into allegations about Babbitt's links to gambling and organized crime as late as 1990.
It is understandable if readers of the Washington Times piece, along with those who saw the story later on national network news reports, believed they were witnessing the birth pangs of yet another administration imbroglio.
This scandal in the making was even worse than past Clinton controversies, though, not only because it involved perhaps the most universally respected member of the president's cabinet--Babbitt was in the running for the court seat in large part because his squeaky clean reputation suggested an easy confirmation--but also because it linked him to an explosive tale of bribery, organized crime, gambling, deceit and even murder. This story, dripping as it was in allegations of moral turpitude, was clearly no mere Nannygate. This had the potential to do real damage.
Seper's article, however, was nonsense. It amounted to a smear.
Sources close to the several probes made into gambling allegations against Babbitt, including a former U.S. attorney, two state attorneys general, an FBI investigator and even the key source cited by Seper, say evidence clearly refutes the essential charges leveled against Babbitt in the Washington Times.
Kent Clifford, the former head of the Las Vegas police intelligence unit, whom Seper quotes as confirming that officers observed Babbitt gambling, tells New Times that Seper misquoted him, "enhancing" his comments. He insists that neither he nor any police officers ever saw Babbitt roll the dice or pull on a one-armed bandit.
In fact, no official investigator--state, local or federal--who has probed recurring Babbitt gambling allegations over the past 17 years has found any hard evidence that the Interior secretary so much as set foot in a Las Vegas casino, much less submitted to credit checks or ran up big gambling debts. Law enforcement investigations in 1977, again in 1986 and once again during Babbitt's confirmation hearings for Interior secretary earlier this year all cleared him of wrongdoing.
"Is this story ever going to die?" wonders Clifford. "My honest opinion is . . . I heard lots of things about Mr. Babbitt. All I ever heard was innuendo and rumor. He did nothing wrong that I know.
"Let it die and go away. Let the man live his life."
In his June 9 "expos‚," Seper led readers to believe that the investigation into Babbitt was relatively fresh and, possibly, still ongoing.
"It was not clear yesterday why the state probe continued into 1990 or where it stands today," wrote Seper.
The only reason the status of the investigation was "not clear" was because the reporter never bothered to call the chief prosecutors for an update or appraisal. Seper did not check back with former U.S. attorney Mike Hawkins or former Arizona attorney general Bob Corbin, both of whom investigated the allegations and found them spurious.
And contrary to what Seper wrote, it was very clear indeed why the charges were reexamined in 1990.
Arizona's new attorney general, Grant Woods, had promised on the campaign trail that the mystery of the Bolles homicide--largely unresolved after 14 years--would be solved. As part of the process of thoroughly inspecting hundreds of old leads, the Babbitt gossip was reexamined and, for at least the third time, found to be without substance. The new probe by Woods, and his predecessor, Corbin, resulted in the conviction of Phoenix contractor Max Dunlap.
Attorney General Woods would have gladly told Seper that his office has no lingering questions about Babbitt. Indeed, the testimony of Attorney General's Office investigator George Weisz before the grand jury in 1990 put such questions to rest. Again. But the prosecutor's office said last week that Seper never called.