Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

When wealthy casino tribes sought to derail a would-be competitor, campaign donations were the currency of the day

Like many Arizonans, I want to believe both Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and his former colleague Paul Eckstein.

Each man has an almost folkloric reputation for integrity.
Yet the Senate hearings that have spawned a Department of Justice probe into Babbitt's 1995 denial of an Indian casino permit in the Midwest--spurred in significant measure by Eckstein's testimony suggesting that Interior's rejection of the casino amounts to an illegal, political quid pro quo--have left us to wonder:

Which of our native sons is telling the truth?
While too much time has passed for any gun to still be smoking in Babbitt's decision to quash the casino, it is also true that we convicted Timothy McVeigh with less circumstantial evidence.

And incriminating facts, like shards of pottery, continue to be unearthed in the disputed, now notorious, decision to deny establishment of an Indian casino in the bucolic burg of Hudson, Wisconsin.

Consider: Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt's two top aides played critical roles in the casino's rejection. Both then quit Interior and went to work for the tribes that lobbied to kill the Hudson deal to prevent any new competition for gambling revenue.

According to depositions taken by Senate investigators, both Babbitt's chief of staff, Tom Collier, as well as the secretary's top counselor on Indian gaming, John Duffy, were hired by wealthy tribes pleased with the Interior Department's controversial ruling, a decision worth hundreds of millions of dollars in casino income.

Collier also told investigators that he channeled $100,000 from a grateful tribe into Bill Clinton's reelection coffers.

Collier and Duffy orchestrated the Hudson denial after Interior's staff had repeatedly urged approval. The final order cited local opposition in Wisconsin as the justification.

No one mentioned that the town's residents had already approved the casino at the polling booth.

These revelations underscore Babbitt's deepening crisis at Interior as Attorney General Janet Reno ponders the appointment of a special prosecutor to unravel the mess.

While Reno considers her options, investigators from the Justice Department have been granted a 90-day extension to get to the bottom of a scandal that reached critical mass when Babbitt's old friend, Paul Eckstein, confronted him with pungent allegations of wrongdoing.

In the beginning, no one could have imagined such an implausible face-off between the two men.

On October 12, 1993, three impoverished bands of Wisconsin Chippewa--Mole Lake, Lac Courte Orielles and Red Cliff--petitioned the secretary of the Interior for permission to operate a casino at an existing dog track on nonreservation land in Hudson.

Opposition to the Chippewa request was led by a two-state coalition of seven tribes who operate some of America's most lucrative Indian gaming parlors. The Shakopee, for example, disburse nearly $400,000 a year to each tribal member and are such a stunning success that they are the subject of NPR profiles.

The wealthy tribes do not welcome competition; Hudson sits just across the state line from the upper Midwest's largest market, Minneapolis/St. Paul.

In October 30 testimony before the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Eckstein said that when he lobbied Babbitt on behalf of the poor Chippewas on July 14, 1995, Babbitt informed him that White House politics and huge campaign contributions from Indians influenced the Interior Department's decision.

If Eckstein's recollection is accurate--Babbitt disputes it--the law has been broken and Republicans seeking to club President Clinton now have a mighty stick indeed.

For his part, Babbitt maintained in sworn testimony before the Senate committee that the Hudson decision was made without thought of partisan politics or campaign contributions.

Babbitt's public statements came one full month after the secret depositions of his former aides, Collier and Duffy.

Sources familiar with the investigation find it impossible to believe that Babbitt was unaware of Collier and Duffy's situation when the secretary testified before the Senate committee probing into the illegal influence of campaign contributions.

After all, Collier and Duffy left Interior to work in the Washington office of Babbitt's old law firm, Steptoe and Johnson. They subsequently found themselves working for the Shakopee.

Old capital hands are familiar with the sort of happy coincidence that has Collier and Duffy employed by the very Indians whose gambling fortunes the pair ensured as Interior bureaucrats. But not everyone is as sanguine about the ways of Washington.

On March 19, federal appellate judge Barbara Crabb wrote of the Hudson casino order: "Drawing all reasonable inferences from the undisputed facts . . . I believe there is a distinct possibility that improper political influence affected the decision."

Crabb reversed an earlier ruling and ordered that tribes upset with the Interior Department's decision be allowed to depose the bureaucrats responsible. The discovery comes in lawsuits aimed at overturning the rejection of the casino.

Crabb went so far as to suggest that the official charged with making the final call, Ada Deer, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, recused herself once she understood that politics, not policy, was driving the decision.

Crabb described Deer's behavior as "odd."
Odd, indeed.
We care about this interesting but obscure brawl in the north woods not only because our sense of civic curiosity extends beyond the intimate sartorial splendor of Marv Albert, but also because the uproar pitted two Arizona men we all know, Babbitt and Eckstein, against each other in a manner that the press found irresistible.

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