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Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

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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.

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."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey