High Stakes

Daniel Ruen

HAROLD ICKES IS undoubtedly the most skilled of Bill Clinton's serial amnesiacs. As White House deputy chief of staff, Ickes, documents show, coordinated the cover-up of interference by the president's men with federal bank regulators, as well as the sordid Travelgate and FBI-files scandals. Quizzed about all this by previous congressional probes of Whitewater, Ickes repeatedly pretended to have no recollection of key events in which sworn testimony and documentary evidence showed him to have been intimately involved.

When Ickes--who, as the president's political and fundraising enforcer, ran the Democratic National Committee from the White House--was called before the Thompson committee last week, he gave an encore, invoking memory loss 40 times before the Senate panel after having claimed amnesia 227 times in his deposition to the committee's lawyers.

Ickes is infinitely smarter than the GOP senators who interrogated him: His clever combination of theatrics, obfuscation, and failure to remember was saluted by the Beltway press corps as a bravura performance. But Maine's Susan Collins, in the scant 10 minutes allotted her for questioning, managed to turn over the rock on a sleazy tale of influence-peddling that illustrates why a new law to get special-interest money out of politics is so urgently needed.

It's the story of three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes--Lac Courte Oreilles, Mole Lake-Sokaogon, and Red Cliff--that wanted to climb out of penury by opening a casino just outside the Twin Cities in Hudson, Wisconsin. Gambling is big business for many Native Americans: 184 of the nation's 557 tribes operate 281 gaming facilities, and a 1996 report from the General Accounting Office showed that profits from Indian-run gambling are more than $4.5 billion annually.

Unemployment among the tribes was 40 percent; the average personal income of one tribe was only $6,000, while another was in danger of losing its medical insurance because it couldn't pay the bills, and a third had no doctor at all. Bureau of Indian Affairs career staffers found the Chippewa worthy of help and recommended okaying their casino application, which required federal approval. But the application was opposed by other Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes grown rich from casinos. And for the first time ever in such a case, the BIA staffers' recommendation was overruled by Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department.

What killed the three tribes' dreams of casino riches? Campaign cash. In sworn testimony, a lobbyist hired by the tribes declared that on the day the casino was nixed, Interior Secretary Babbitt told him that the application had been scuttled at the direction of Harold Ickes because the gambling-rich tribes opposing the unwanted competition had given some $500,000 to the Democrats. This testimony had great credibility because it came from Arizona lawyer Paul Eckstein, a Harvard Law School buddy of Babbitt's who had also been Babbitt's campaign manager when he won the Arizona governorship.

Deploying his oh-so-convenient amnesia, Ickes denied to the senators having "any recollection" of "talking to Interior" about the matter, and--having been alerted to the charge during his deposition--produced a letter from Babbitt (unsworn) claiming he never mentioned money in the conversation with Eckstein. This, combined with Ickes's non-denial denial, allowed the president's enforcer to slip away unscathed.

But the biggest whopper from Ickes came when he said he didn't consider the casino matter "a big deal." There's a lot of gambling money in politics, and non-Indian gaming interests shell out about equally to both major parties. But Indian-run gambling is a big deal for the Democrats indeed: According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats got a whopping 87 percent of the $1.6 million in hard and soft money that gambling-rich tribes gave to federal elections in 1995 and 1996. And that doesn't count hard-to-trace soft-money contributions to state parties. Documents found in Ickes's files show that he and the DNC directed Indian casino cash in the hundreds of thousands to Democratic parties in at least half a dozen states.

Neither party is exempt from such sleaze: One reason New Jersey's GOP Gov. Christie Whitman finds herself in re-election difficulties this fall is that she's under attack for funding a $330 million tunnel and roadway to a new Atlantic City casino owned by shady Las Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn, a megabucks contributor to both Republicans and Democrats. And the entire Nevada congressional delegation from both parties has long been in the pocket of the boys on the Strip, as the Vegas casino ghetto is familiarly known. The Ickes-Babbitt snuffing of the Chippewas' attempt to climb on the gambling gravy train, however, shows that the Democrats can be just as ruthless to the poor as the "party of privilege" when legally bribed with big campaign cash.

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