The scandal culture reaches Bruce Babbitt

  • Surprising Target: Bruce Babbitt

    Rick Keister photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a rational world, one would not have to wonder whether a special prosecutor might be appointed to investigate the doings of Bruce Babbitt, endangering his tenure as secretary of the Interior.

In this world? Well, we'd better take a look.

In the great scheme of things, it matters little whether Babbitt or another similarly inclined person sits in the secretary's chair. Nor is there much doubt that, should Babbitt vacate the chair, President Clinton would appoint a similarly inclined person to sit in it.

In theory, the Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee might withhold confirmation of such an appointee. But Clinton and the Democrats would love that so much, and Republican pollsters and campaign consultants would hate it so much, that it is unlikely to happen.

Neither is Babbitt likely to be driven from office; from all evidence in the public domain, neither he nor anyone in his employ did anything improper. But an independent counsel (the official term for special prosecutor) could be a bothersome diversion to him, and hence to his department.

In the rational world yearned for above, investigations were undertaken when actual evidence indicated that a law had been broken, and the investigators asked the typical cop's question: Who Done It?

Now, in "the scandal culture," ( a term coined by the estimable Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe), evidence is superfluous. In its place are "questions," which are invariably "raised," inspiring an investigation which asks a new question: What was done that we might consider a crime?

Take the case in which Attorney General Janet Reno must decide by Feb. 11 whether to seek appointment of an Independent Council to investigate Babbitt.

It all started because of a money-losing dog track in Hudson, Wis., hard by the Minnesota border. In 1993, the track's owner and three Chippewa tribes decided to transform this dog into an Indian gambling casino, even though it was not on or even very close to a reservation.

Despite this complication, the regional office of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended approval of the Chippewa application to put the land in federal trust so the tribes could run a casino.

This decision displeased some other Indians, who already had a casino in the Minneapolis area, not all that far from Hudson. They hired a lobbyist, Patrick O'Connor, a former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, to argue against approving the Hudson gambling house.

O'Connor did what lobbyists do in such matters, which is express the views of his clients to anyone he could reach - even, for one brief moment, the president of the United States. O'Connor also arranged a meeting between his clients and Don Fowler, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who called Harold Ickes, the deputy chief of staff at the White House, and told him that these Indians and their lobbyist were good Democrats and were opposed to this casino.

On July 14, 1995, the Interior Department turned down the Chippewa. In 1996, O'Connor's clients who run the tribal casino in Minnesota contributed some $370,000 to the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.

Well, all this certainly "raises questions." Could it be that O'Connor, Fowler and Ickes pressured Babbitt to overrule the professionals in his department in exchange for political support and a fat campaign contribution?

It could be. But - and this used to be pivotal - there seems to be no evidence for it, and there were valid reasons for Interior to turn down the Chippewa. A great many people in and around Hudson didn't want a casino in town. The city council came out against it, and so did several other state and local officials, including Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican.

Not only is there no evidence of undue political interference, there is sworn testimony to the contrary. The testimony is in depositions by George Skibine, the head of the Indian Gaming Management staff, an 18-year career employee of Interior, and Deputy Assistant for Indian Affairs Michael Anderson. They said the decision was theirs, on the merits, without a word from the Democratic Party or the White House.

It is possible, to be sure, that even without being lobbied, Skibine and Anderson knew the score. Like faculty lounges, government agencies are rumor mills. It would not have been surprising if, before he made the ruling that Anderson approved, Skibine understood that rejecting the application would please his bosses.

To this possibility, the intelligent citizen can have but one reaction: So what? We are not discussing a moral issue here, or even much of a public policy issue. Truth, justice and the American Way are not at stake. This is simply a matter of dividing the pie, and, all other things being equal, there is nothing wrong with the pie-cutters giving their friends the big pieces.

In short, even if this was not, in Babbitt's words, "the right decision, made the right way for the right reasons," it was certainly a reasonable decision made in an acceptable manner for conventional reasons.

But in the scandal culture, even those who did no wrong may be culpable because of the way they reacted to those questions that were raised, and here Babbitt may have given his foes some ammunition.

By the summer of 1995, the Chippewa hired their own lobbyist, an old friend and former law partner of Babbitt's named Paul Eckstein, who visited the Interior secretary to discuss the matter (thus creating the only actual evidence of an effort to apply political pressure in the case).

Eckstein later said that Babbitt said something about political heat from the White House to make a quick decision, which conflicts with Babbitt's Aug. 30, 1996, letter to Sen. John McCain R-Ariz., denying that the White House had exerted any pressure.

In a second letter to McCain, Babbitt said, "I do believe that Mr. Eckstein's recollection that I said something to the effect that Mr. Ickes wanted a decision is correct. Mr. Eckstein was extremely persistent in our meeting and I used this phrase simply as a means of terminating the discussion and getting him out the door."

So Babbitt either told Eckstein a white lie to be polite or told McCain a not-so-white lie. Lying to Congress is against the law, Babbitt is a "covered person" under the Independent Counsel law, Eckstein is a "credible source," and the allegation is "specific." These are the criteria triggering appointment of an independent counsel.

That the allegation is also frivolous may not matter. Having (appropriately) used a narrow, letter-of-the-law standard in deciding not to seek an independent counsel in earlier cases, Reno has made it harder for herself not to use the same standard to rule the other way here.

Besides, for all her claims that she is guided only by the facts and the law, the attorney general understands politics. It might be a good move for her to let the process go forward on this case - in effect, to throw the Republicans a bone. What's to lose, considering that nobody did anything wrong?

Probably nothing, aside from the waste of money. But special prosecutors have become a greater danger to the Republic than political corruption. We now have a former cabinet member under indictment for lying to FBI agents about his former girlfriends, just as he should have. The crime, if there was one, was committed by the agents, who have no business asking such questions.

If Bruce Babbitt has former girlfriends to hide, mouths all over Washington and Phoenix will stand agape for days. But independent counsels know no bounds, and they define their mission as indicting - someone, for something, for anything.

Babbitt may be their ultimate challenge.

Jon Margolis forgoes soap operas for Washington, D.C.

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