Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

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

"Officer Weigang: '. . . I'm asking you to leave right now. If you refuse to leave, I'm going to take you into custody . . ."

"Tilsen: '--police officer? The problem with that, of course--'"
"Officer Weigang: 'I don't want to hear any of the problems with this on your point of view. You either leave or I'm going to arrest you.'"

Several minutes later, Tilsen left.

The Decision
In court records, Larry Kitto, a lobbyist for the tribes opposing the Hudson casino and an associate in Patrick O'Connor's firm, was blunt in his assessment: ". . . we needed help from the president of the United States to make sure that Bruce Babbitt and the Department of the Interior thoroughly and openly evaluated the project and took all the facts into consideration."

Critics familiar with Interior claim that Babbitt and his closest advisers were particularly sensitive to White House concerns long before the Hudson casino became an issue.

And Kitto has no problem with such behavior at Interior. He expected a helping hand.

"I would hope somebody in the White House called the Department of the Interior and said, 'take a good look at this,'" he said in a deposition.

"I hope people know who they work for. I'm assuming that they take their--Babbitt takes his orders from somebody in the White House."

Despite Kitto's candid bluster, Babbitt cannot legally take direction on gaming decisions from either the White House or lobbyists bankrolling Democratic fund raising. And the FBI is investigating to find out exactly what, if any, impact these influences had upon Interior's rejection of the Hudson casino.

There is one hell of a series of dramatic events available for law enforcement review.

Court documents and Senate depositions show clearly that Babbitt's top aides, Tom Collier, John Duffy and Heather Sibbison--political appointees all--not only drove the controversial Hudson casino decision, they repeatedly overruled Interior's career staff in order to do so.

In the Hudson casino application, Babbitt's Department of the Interior for the first time ever reopened a case for public comment after a regional office finished its investigation.

The Hudson case marked the first time Babbitt's Department of the Interior vetoed a recommendation by a BIA regional office.

Babbitt's political operatives informed the White House at the end of May 1995 that the Hudson casino application was dead in the water; yet within weeks, career Interior staff in Washington, D.C., unaware of the back-channel machinations, echoed the regional BIA office by urging approval of the Hudson casino.

The staff recommendation was dismissed.
All of this unprecedented activity took place while lobbyists opposed to the casino twisted the arms of the Democratic party's most senior fund raisers both at the DNC and the White House. Even the president was lobbied.

The message wasn't subtle: The men who controlled the purse strings of the wealthy Indian tribes needed help.

And Indian money is increasingly a source of partisan fund raising. On Monday, the New York Times ran a lengthy story about the controversial donations to the Democratic party from tribes across the nation.

In the Hudson casino case, the decision was particularly sensitive because it pitted three impoverished tribes against a coalition of seven wealthy reservations who were loath to share the pot of gambling gold.

Interior's own regulations list only two reasons to deny casino permits to tribes: potential harm to tribes making the application; detriment to the local community.

Critics complain that these criteria were ignored by Babbitt's people. It is hard to argue otherwise.

There was a meeting on May 22, 1995, that is critical if you want to understand the palace intrigue at Interior.

Debbie Doxator, chair of the Oneida reservation and an opponent of Hudson, and her lobbyist, Scott Dacey, met with senior Interior staff in Washington.

The news was not good.
Michael Anderson, deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, explained how the criteria worked.

Afterward, Dacey wrote a detailed memorandum.
"The term 'detrimental' means activities which might arise other than normal competitive pressures. For example, an argument establishing detriment might include increased auto traffic, a drain on the area water supply or other environmental concerns. However, even environmental concerns can be offset by parties willing to negotiate new traffic patterns, additional parking lots, new roads, new sewers, etc.

"Public sentiment or opinion is not considered 'detrimental,' therefore, little weight is given to communities which pass resolutions in opposition to gaming unless they demonstrate an impact on the community. Moreover, the economic impact a gaming establishment might have on other gaming or non-gaming establishments is also of little concern to the BIA because it falls into the definition of a 'normal competitive pressure.'"

In his deposition, Anderson testified that Dacey's memorandum is an accurate recounting of their meeting.

Dacey, who wanted to stop the Hudson casino on behalf of his clients, the Oneida, was not optimistic after the Interior meeting.

In the section of his report labeled "analysis," Dacey concluded: "With respect to the Hudson track, things don't look good. . . . Things might change when the politicians like Babbitt and Duffy become involved, but without the law on their side, it will be difficult to kill the deal."

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