Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

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

Associates claim that when the old man wants something, he is as persistent, and irritating, as a summer cough. In his quest to stop the Hudson casino, he began at the top.

On April 19, 1995, O'Connor sent a fax to the White House specialist on Indian Affairs, Loretta Avent.

"Please call me to discuss some aspects of this matter which I believe are important to the Clinton administration," O'Connor wrote to Avent.

Four days later, he cornered the president when Bill Clinton made an appearance in Minneapolis. He complained to Clinton that Avent had not returned his calls on the Hudson casino.

Clinton immediately summoned aide Bruce Lindsey with the instruction to take care of O'Connor, according to court records.

Lindsey later called the White House from Air Force One and the truth promptly began taking casualties.

On Lindsey's orders, Avent phoned O'Connor.
Her superiors might have made her phone O'Connor, but that did not mean she cooperated.

"She said there are 400 tribes or more. I only talk to the chairman of the tribes or the chiefs. I do not talk to lobbyists," recounted O'Connor in deposition. He then reminded Avent that she was talking to a lobbyist at that very moment.

Avent later reported that an agitated O'Connor hung up on her after threatening to go over her head by taking his case to the head of the DNC, Don Fowler.

In his account, O'Connor strongly disagreed with Avent's version of their call.

"I have no recollection of hanging up on her," said O'Connor. "I would be very surprised if I would ever hang up on any public official . . . I can't recall that I would say to her, 'Well, I'm going to talk to Fowler.'"

(Unfortunately for O'Connor's pettifogging, Avent had a silent witness on the line, White House domestic policy adviser Michael T. Schmidt.)

Less than a week later, O'Connor was in Fowler's office, making his pitch.
Avent, meanwhile, wrote a strong warning about O'Connor to her boss, Harold Ickes, the White House deputy chief of staff and the reelection campaign's chief fund raiser.

"The legal and political implications of our involvement [in the Hudson casino case] would be disastrous," said Avent.

Schmidt agreed in a memo to the White House counsel: "We legally can not intervene with the secretary of the interior on this issue . . . It would be political poison for the president or his staff to be anywhere near this issue."

Ickes ignored the advice and phoned O'Connor.
Later, when the political land mines exploded and everyone was counting their bloody toes, Avent would almost gleefully stick it to Ickes in a follow-up note: "My instinct on this was right. STAY OUT OF THIS. WHOEVER THE PRESSURE COMES FROM COULDN'T BE WORTH OUR GETTING INVOLVED. I DIDN'T. THANK GOD."

But in the spring of 1995, Ickes was focused upon reelecting his boss, Bill Clinton, and raising the money necessary to do it.

He called O'Connor on April 25 and 26, missing him both times.
On May 8, O'Connor donned his Shriner's cap and wrote a letter to Ickes that brazenly crossed the legal line between policy, politics and campaign contributions. After thanking Ickes for his interest, O'Connor plunged into the muck.

"I assume these calls were prompted by my discussion with the President and Bruce Lindsey on April 24 when they were in Minneapolis. . . . I have been advised that (DNC) Chairman Fowler has talked to you about this matter and sent you a memo outlining the basis for the opposition to creating another gaming casino in this area."

After a recitation of his clients' fears that a new casino would harm existing tribal casinos, O'Connor cut to the chase:

"I would also like to relate the politics involved in this situation:
"1. Governor Thompson of Wisconsin supports this project.
"2. Senator Al D'Amato supports this project because it bails out Delaware North, the company that owns this defunct dog track and also operated another dog track in Wisconsin. Delaware North is located in Buffalo, New York.

"3. The chairman of the Indian tribe in the forefront of this project is active in Republican party politics; this year he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Wisconsin State Senate.

"4. All of the representatives of the tribes that met with Chairman Fowler are Democrats and have been so for years. I can testify to their previous financial support to the DNC and the 1992 Clinton-Gore Campaign Committee.

"5. The entire Minnesota (Democrats and Republicans) Congressional delegation oppose this project. The Wisconsin Democratic Congressional delegation (including Congressman Gunderson in whose district the dog track is located) oppose the project."

The correspondence with Ickes is extraordinary. O'Connor's brazenness in asking Ickes to break the law is exceeded only by his fiction.

Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson was mentioned no doubt because he was rumored to be a possible GOP vice presidential candidate and therefore, according to O'Connor, this should be a factor in White House thinking. But an ally of O'Connor's said the governor was not supportive of the casino.

In a May 23, 1995, memorandum between lobbyists working with O'Connor, Ann Jablonsky wrote, "I guess I would not say Thompson supports this project because he has not publicly made that statement, far from it."

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