Jokers Wild

Daniel Ruen

THE FINAL PUBLIC hearing of Sen. Fred Thompson's investigation into campaign finance last week ended on a note of relatively high drama, pitting Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt against his old friend and former law partner, Paul Eckstein. Eckstein related his 11th-hour appeal to Babbitt not to reject the application of three poor Wisconsin Chippewa tribes for a casino in Hudson. He said Babbitt had told him White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes was pressing for the decision because of huge donations to the Democrats from Minnesota and Wisconsin tribes that already had casinos.

Eckstein's visible discomfort at having to take on his buddy Babbitt made his testimony credible. After all, he'd not only been Babbitt's close friend for more than 30 years; he'd served as his personal attorney, and had managed Babbitt's 1982 campaign for governor of Arizona. Eckstein was clearly outraged that Babbitt, in a previous letter to their home-state senator John McCain, had denied mentioning either Ickes or campaign cash--in effect calling Eckstein a liar.

By the time Babbitt took the witness chair, he'd already recanted his earlier denial in a letter to Thompson. In it he admitted having mentioned Ickes, saying he'd done so only to get rid of the persistent Eckstein. But Babbitt's insistence that campaign cash had nothing to do with the anti-casino decision was belied by a raft of documents. They revealed that gambling-rich tribes opposing the new casino--including the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota, owners of Mystic Lake, and the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa, who operate the Mille Lacs and Hinckley Grand Casinos--had hired heavy-hitting lobbyist Patrick O'Connor of the Minneapolis-based firm O'Connor and Hannan; and that O'Connor had personally spoken to Bill Clinton about the matter at an April 1995 Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis.

Shortly thereafter, top Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey--the Arkansan who is custodian of the Clintons' darkest secrets--contacted Ickes's staff on behalf of the anti-casino tribes. Ickes, charged with fundraising for the White House, was subsequently kept informed by his staff and by O'Connor, a former Democratic Party treasurer. Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler also got into the act, lobbying against the casino.

At the Thompson hearings, Babbitt claimed that Interior's decision to scotch the casino was based on "local opposition" from politicians--including the entire Minnesota Congressional delegation and Russ Feingold, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. However, a memo to Ickes from his key aide pointed out that this chorus of anti-casino statements was "generated by lobbyists" for the opposing gambling-rich tribes. And it was after the July 14, 1995 Interior decision to reject the casino that most of the $400,000 donated by the anti-casino tribes to the Democrats (including a total of some $60,000 to the Minnesota party) was given.

According to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics, the multibillion-dollar Indian gambling industry spent at least $2.5 million on lobbying (and that's only at the federal level). After the Chippewa casino was rejected, two of Babbitt's most senior aides were hired as lobbyists by one of the Dakota tribes that had opposed the casino. And Clinton's new nominee to head the historically corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover, just happens to be a lobbyist for a casino-operating Pueblo tribe that gave $50,000 to the Democrats in 1995.

The Hudson casino scandal is a paradigm of what's wrong with the system that allows special interests to finance parties and campaigns. Everyone went into the tank on behalf of the casino moguls on this one: the president; his closest White House aides; the Democratic National Committee; the political establishment of two states; and the Interior Department's political staff, including Secretary Babbitt. Long said to be on Clinton's short list for the next Supreme Court vacancy, Babbitt--his reputation now in shreds--is currently the target of a Justice Department investigation to determine if a special prosecutor should probe the Hudson affair. (It's yet another conflict of interest for Janet Reno: Justice is already defending Interior in a lawsuit brought by the Chippewa to overturn the rejection of their casino application.)

With the Thompson hearings effectively over--having devoted 32 days to shady Democratic fundraising, but only three to the Republicans'--any slim hope of lighting a fire under the moribund congressional effort for campaign-money reform has also ended. Although the House investigation under crypto-fascist Rep. Dan Burton opens its public hearings this week, Burton is already so discredited that nothing coming out of his panel will be taken seriously. That's why Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott felt comfortable scheduling another vote on the McCain/Feingold reform bill for next March. He knows that, absent a massive public outcry, he's got the votes to defeat any serious changes in the incumbent-protection racket.

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