WILLIAM SAFIRE 1997 New York Times News Service

Friday, January 2, 1998

"I DON'T think you can find any evidence,'' President Clinton told reporters last March, ``of the fact that I had changed government policy solely because of a contribution.''

The careful qualifier solely was his intended escape hatch; reasons other than a payoff always can be dredged up. But in determining whether bribery took place, prosecutors need prove only that a policy decision was made mainly be- cause of a heavy donation to his re-election.

That's why Clinton's personal intercession on the side of ``friendly'' Indian gambling casinos -- against tribes seeking a competing casino that failed to contribute to Democratic campaigns -- should lead to independent prosecution.

A lobbyist for the friendly Indians, who also was a former Democratic National Committee treasurer, made the pitch for his tribe against allowing competition directly to the president.

Clinton promptly told his longtime Mr. Fixit, Bruce Lindsey, to handle it. Lindsey immediately put the word in to the man running the DNC from the White House, Harold Ickes. Despite warnings about the consequences, Ickes in turn caused heat to be put on Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Babbitt's top aides at Interior must have been delighted to get the political direction from the White House. These included lawyers who later cashed in by bringing the retainers from Democrat-friendly Indians into a Washington law firm. Another Babbitt aide, Heather Sibbison, assured Ickes's staff that the competition would be blocked. A June 6, 1995, White House memo reports that Sibbison said that although there was some local resentment at the lobbying by the wealthier tribes against the application, Interior was ``95 percent certain that the application will be turned down.''

The fix was in at Interior's top. But just two days later, on June 8, the Indian Gaming Management staff told its director, George Skibine, exactly the opposite. ``If strong local support is garnered only by filling the outstretched hand to make local officials eager supporters, then IGRA [the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] fails to protect.'' Staff recommendation: Approve the application of the poorer tribes to compete with the casino-enriched tribes.

A draft document just found by the Senate's Thompson committee shows that recommendation strengthened by Skibine for submission to political appointees above him. But apparently it was quashed, and now he is supporting his bosses.

Committee Counsel Mike Matigan, in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, notes that this bureaucrat's draft memo was found to be ``urging the exact opposite of his final decision.'' That decision was handled by one of the Babbitt assistants who soon would represent the tribes now coining money with their Clinton-guaranteed gambling monopoly. And what was the turnaround of Interior's staff recommendation worth? Contributions of $230,000 to the DNC to help re-elect Clinton.

This circumstantial evidence was buttressed by Paul Eckstein, a lifelong pal of Babbitt's, representing the poorer tribes, who was witness to the corruption. This credible eyewitness testified under oath that Babbitt told him that an agitated Ickes had directed him to make the decision fast and that the richer tribes had contributed a half-million dollars to the Democrats.

Babbitt admits that he failed to tell the truth to the Senate when first asked about his meeting with Eckstein and has substituted another story that also rings with the clank of falsity. If the case ever gets past Clinton's cover-up crew at Janet Reno's ``Public Integrity'' section, a jury will decide which man is to be believed.

Here we have a blatant example of the purchase of government policy. A lobbyist got to Clinton, who gave the assignment to Lindsey, who took it to Ickes, who leaned on Babbitt, who was surrounded with top staff eyeing the lucrative revolving door.

The recommendation was changed not solely but substantially because lobbyists outside, and appointees inside, Interior later arranged for contributions to Clinton's re-election by tribal casino monopolists.

If that closed circle is not credible evidence of bribery of an administration, what is? Babbitt, one of the few who did not financially profit in all this, is a person covered by the Independent Counsel Act. When does the law get enforced?

All content © 1998 THE MIAMI HERALD

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