Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

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

Buddhist nuns and Chinese influence peddlers caught up in the campaign-finance investigation might be too exotic for the average local reader, but the clash between Babbitt and Eckstein was pure People magazine. And it wasn't just the local rubes who succumbed to the lure of the folksy hook; the New York Times ran with the same angle.

After all, it was a terrific tale.
The two Arizona boys went to Harvard law together, took the bar together, and set up their careers together at the Phoenix law firm of Brown and Bain. When Babbitt ran for office, Eckstein managed the campaign, then served as part of Babbitt's kitchen cabinet.

Yet when Eckstein went to Washington to plead on behalf of a casino for the poor Chippewas, he discovered that his friend, the secretary of the Interior, was about to release the order denying the request.

Recounting the July 1995 meeting, Eckstein told the Senate that when he pleaded for time, Babbitt responded by saying that "Harold Ickes had directed him [Babbitt] to issue the decision that day."

Eckstein added that Babbitt followed that untoward remark with a troubling question: "Do you have any idea of how much these Indians with gaming contracts have given to Democrats?"

Eckstein did not, but Babbitt knew.
"He said a half-million dollars," Eckstein testified.
This was the sort of conversation one had with cabinet officials in the Warren Harding administration.

Eckstein left Babbitt's office, repeated the comments to his clients and departed Washington, heartsick.

When these remarks eventually surfaced in legal proceedings, Babbitt quickly denied them.

The floundering secretary then slipped into a concrete life jacket by changing his story, not once, but twice.

The press in Arizona was dumbfounded.
Reporters remembered Babbitt's candor and honesty as much as his clean and progressive gubernatorial administrations.

These same reporters were often represented by Eckstein, Arizona's premier media attorney and a man universally recognized for his rectitude.

Who was telling the truth?
Rather than investigate this difficult question, Arizona reporters served up a series of nostalgia pieces about Babbitt and Eckstein. When not hiking down memory lane, readers consumed talking-head articles of the sort where one side asserts and the other denies, the kind of journalism that obscures reality rather than illuminating it.

There exists a parallel universe where documents, facts and research supplant celebrity gawking. It's a universe where papers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Washington Post and the Associated Press have all labored in an effort to understand the events at the Department of the Interior.

There are six distinct legal proceedings--and a seventh is pending--that swirl around Interior's decision on the Hudson, Wisconsin, casino.

Everywhere I looked I found moldy breadcrumbs marking a trail to the Interior Department, enough breadcrumbs to stuff Babbitt's holiday goose. And I wasn't alone.

A small army of lawyers has been badgering each other and endlessly nagging witnesses. There are thousands of pages of testimony and all of it is aimed at getting to the truth behind Babbitt's decisions at Interior.

The litigators are focused upon a narrow issue, a single decision involving Indian tribes whose names most of us cannot pronounce.

Overlaying these parochial concerns like an American flag on our national coffin is a stark question: Is the Clinton administration for sale?

Those who doubt whether Attorney General Janet Reno is capable of an investigation of Babbitt and Clinton devoid of partisan considerations will feel confirmed in their cynicism when they learn that not one of the attorneys in the Midwest has been contacted about his cases by Justice Department investigators.

Watching the Cash
At 77, attorney Patrick O'Connor, founder of the Minnesota powerhouse law firm that carries his name, is a legend. Younger legal partners talk about how they know of the gentleman through "the lore of the firm." In 1969, he served as the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the national fund-raising arm of his party, and is today a DNC trustee. In 1992, O'Connor raised funds as the Minnesota treasurer of the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Patrick O'Connor, you see, believes in money and access. As the point man for the Indian tribes bent on heading off the Hudson casino, he ensured that, every step of the way, cash fluttered to the Democratic party bottom line like flakes in a Midwestern blizzard.

His golden years are not the sepia-tone images of a bow-tied Henry Fonda ruminating about the complexity of the law. There is about Mr. O'Connor the subtlety of a Shriner in a clown car. He looks like a rumpled Irish ward healer and often acts like one: Recently, on national television, he offered to poke an ABC camera operator in the nose for violating his personal space. Yet even his enemies find the loquacious coot irresistible.

On the day that the Chippewas' casino application was denied, O'Connor's desk calendar reflects that he was already organizing appreciative fund raising. By the end of the next cycle of election-check writing, Indians who benefited directly from Interior's decision on the Hudson casino would fork over $270,000 to the Democratic party. And at minimum, $80,000 came from O'Connor's client tribes.

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