ANATOMY O

WHEN BRUCE BABBITT SURFACED AS THE TOP CHOICE FOR THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, A WASHINGTON, D.C., NEWPAPER PLAYED FAST, LOOSE AND SLOPPY WITH HIS PAST

Neither Babbitt nor Seper returned calls from New Times. In response to a list of questions faxed by New Times to the Washington Times, Seper faxed back a note that took issue with the "sincerity" of efforts to contact him, but did not answer any of the questions.

Although readers had no way of knowing, Seper's story was not a fresh, hot political expos‚, but simply a moldy, warmed-over concoction of old innuendo and distortion. Most of this "scoop" had been reported before, in 1977 and then again in 1986--on the latter occasion by Seper himself. Both times it was quickly discredited by state and federal investigators and entombed in the mausoleum reserved for unsubstantiated political supposition.

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@body:To trace the genesis of this lingering tale, it is necessary to venture back to 1977, when Babbitt was serving as state attorney general. Early that July, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Michael Hawkins, announced that fellow Democrat Babbitt was under investigation for alleged ties to Las Vegas gambling figures and casinos--where he was reported to have incurred six-figure debts by betting wildly during several Nevada visits.

Babbitt said at the time that the rumor was merely a political counterstrike launched by Robert Fendler, the president of the defunct Lincoln Thrift Company, who had been indicted by Babbitt's office. Babbitt, who insisted he had been to Las Vegas only twice--once while in college and again in 1967 for a legal seminar--publicly welcomed the investigation.

The FBI quickly began a probe into the charges, and by the end of the month, Hawkins called a press conference to announce that the investigation had cleared Babbitt.

"My feeling has always been," Hawkins tells New Times, "that it was some rather unsavory characters, someone who had an ax to grind against Bruce, someone who his office might be investigating or preparing to prosecute, who started this rumor.

"The allegations were murky at best to begin with, and they didn't get any better when the FBI looked into them. I don't know where [Seper] is coming from on this now."
Hawkins' gets a chuckle out of the image of the bookish, reserved Babbitt as a rabid gambler.

"The idea of Bruce Babbitt bellying up to a crap table and yelling 'snake eyes' is just absurd," he says with a laugh. "Bruce is the kind of guy who if he saw a pair of dice would wonder if they were ivory, and what international poaching law had been violated to bring them into the country."
Hawkins, who wrote a letter explaining the results of the investigation to the U.S. Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources during Babbitt's Department of the Interior confirmation hearings, says there "wasn't a shred of evidence to support a connection between [Babbitt] and gambling or organized crime in Vegas, or anywhere else."

Anticipating that critics might charge that Hawkins, a fellow Democrat, could be involved in soft-pedaling the investigation to protect Babbitt, Hawkins noted in his letter that although they eventually became friends, he and the then-attorney general had often differed--and that Babbitt had even opposed Hawkins' appointment as U.S. attorney. He remains skeptical that Babbitt indulged in heavy gambling then or at any point in his career.

Although experience teaches that politicians, even policy wonks like Babbitt, are often full of unsavory surprises, the results of the investigations--as well as the policies and procedures of Las Vegas casinos--support Hawkins' conclusion.

A high-ranking ex-FBI source who took an active role in the 1977 investigation confirmed that agents checked guest-registry books and interviewed employees at all four Las Vegas hotels--the Dunes, the Marina, the MGM Grand (now Bally's) and Caesars Palace--where Babbitt was reported to have gambled. The agent echoes Hawkins' assertion that there was absolutely no evidence linking Babbitt to the casinos, and noted that the FBI also suspected that a Babbitt foe was at the root of the story.

"I'll tell you frankly," the now-retired agent says. "It wouldn't have upset me on a personal level if we had found Bruce involved in some wrongdoing. I wasn't a big fan of his. I always thought he was arrogant and ambitious--a dangerous combination.

"But there wasn't anything to [the allegations]. There were rumors upon rumors that we chased down, but nothing you could put your finger on."
Both Hawkins and the agent admit that the name "Bruce Babbitt" was found in the files of Central Credit, a company that researches credit-history requests for Las Vegas casinos. In his Washington Times story, Seper noted the presence of the name, confirmed by Nevada Gaming Control Board investigator Ron Hollis in 1989, as evidence that the credit checks were performed.

But as Seper reported, not even Hollis could confirm that the "Bruce Babbitt" in the Central Credit files and the future governor were one in the same, partly because the records were mysteriously missing by 1989, but also because the "credit inquiries" didn't include vital information such as a date of birth or a social security number.

According to Seper, Hollis--who did not return telephone calls from New Times--attempted to rationalize this shortfall in evidence by saying that casinos often allow "celebrities or prominent people" to forgo submitting such detailed personal information to the credit-checking company.

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