The Indian Casino Decision
The DNC targeted the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”) to influence a decision whether three bands of Wisconsin Indian tribes would be allowed to open a casino in Hudson, Wisconsin. A wealthy group of neighboring tribes in Minnesota, who operated a nearby casino that would face competition if the Hudson application were approved, opposed the proposal. Significantly, the opposing tribes had given large sums of money to the DNC, while the applicants had not
After the BIA’s Minneapolis office approved the applicant tribes’ plan in late 1994, the opposing tribes hired Patrick O’Connor, a prominent lobbyist and former DNC treasurer, who spoke personally with President Clinton about this matter. Four days later, O’Connor, accompanied by other lobbyists and opposition tribal leaders, met with Fowler. As one participant recalled it, Fowler “got the message: it’s politics and the Democrats are against [the new casino] and the people for it are Republicans.” Fowler promised that he would contact Ickes and have him talk with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, which he did a few days later
After making several calls herself to the Interior Department, Ickes’ assistant Jennifer O’Connor, in June 1995 asked a White House intern to get an update on the Hudson casino. Heather Sibbison, special assistant to Secretary Babbitt, told the intern “it was 95% certain that the application would be turned down.” Just two days later, however, a career BIA employee, wrote a 17-page analysis recommending approval of the Hudson application. Nevertheless, the assurances that Secretary Babbitt’s staff conveyed to Ickes’ office were correct: despite the BIA’s recommendation that it be approved, a draft letter rejecting the application was prepared on June 29, 1995, and the Interior Department formally denied the application on July 14
The opposing tribes apparently had little doubt as to how to show their gratitude for the Interior Department’s decision to protect them from gaming competition. According to FEC records, in the four months following the Department’s denial of the Hudson application, the opposition tribes contributed $53,000 to the DNC and the DSCC; they donated an additional $230,000 to the DNC and the DSCC during 1996, and gave more than $50,000 in additional money to the Minnesota Democratic Party
Another suspicious aspect of the Hudson episode involves the inconsistent positions taken by Secretary Babbitt when asked about the matter. According to Paul Eckstein, a longtime friend of Secretary Babbitt who had been retained by the applicant tribes, when Eckstein tried to persuade Secretary Babbitt to delay making a decision on the Hudson matter, Secretary Babbitt replied that Ickes had directed him to issue a decision that very day. Later in their conversation, Eckstein told the Committee, Secretary Babbitt turned the subject to political contributions, declaring to Eckstein: “Do you have any idea how much these Indians, Indians with gaming contracts . . . have given to Democrats? . . . [H]alf a million dollars.”
When asked about these comments by Senator John McCain, who then chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Secretary Babbitt denied that he had ever told Eckstein anything about Ickes seeking a prompt decision on the Hudson matter. Nevertheless, several months later, in response to this Committee’s inquiry, Secretary Babbitt changed his story, admitting that he probably did make such a remark to Eckstein about Ickes’ request. Secretary Babbitt still claims to have “no recollection” of making the comment Eckstein recalls about the opposing tribes’ political contributions. The Hudson casino matter is, if anything, more sordid than the Tamraz story, as political donations to the DNC apparently succeeded in purchasing government policy concessions. In light of the opposing tribes’ DNC contributions, the DNC’s lobbying effort against the casino, the involvement of Ickes’ staff in drawing Secretary Babbitt’s attention to this issue, and Secretary Babbitt’s remarkable comments to Eckstein, the Hudson casino matter raises serious questions about the propriety – and the legality – of the Interior Department’s decision. And the DNC also took advantage of two Oklahoma tribes that sought the return of their former lands, and made contributions in the belief that their prospects for favorable action would be enhanced
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July and August 1995 – MIGA, Frank Ducheneaux, O’Connor-Hanna lobbying firm, JoAnne Jones of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Stanley Crooks of the Mdewakanton Sioux and other chairmen from the opposing tribes send numerous “thank-you” letters to the White House, DNC and Indian Affairs Committee thanking Ickes, Fowler, Mercer, and Sen. McCain for their assistance in “working with” the Department of Interior to defeat the Four Feathers casino project. Some of the letters include promises of continued financial support to Clinton and the DNC.
August 2, 1995 – The Mille Lac Band donates $1,000 to the DNC
September 13, 1995 – Grand Casino Mille Lac donates $15,000 to the DNC.
September 15, 1995 – The Oneida Tribe donates $10,000 to the DNC.
October 26, 1995 – Grand Casinos Inc., donates $3,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee.
November 3, 1995 – Grand Casinos Inc. donate $10,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee.
November 9, 1995 – The St. Croix Tribal Council donates $15,000 to the DNC.
November 11, 1995 – The Oneida Tribe donates $10,000 to the DNC.
November 15, 1995 – Grand Casino Inc. donate $10,000 to the Republican National State Election Committee.
March 28, 1996 – Deborah Doxtator attends a White House coffee hosted by President Clinton. Doxtator says in February 12, 1997 interview that she took the opportunity to ask for Clinton’s support in a New York lands claim issue. The Oneida Tribe donates $30,000 to the DNC.
June 6, 1996 – The Mdewakanton Sioux donate $5,000 to the DNC
June 7, 1996 – The Mdewakanton Sioux donate $20,000 to the DNC
June 21, 1996 -The St. Croix Chippewa donate $15,000 to the DNC
June 30, 1996 – St. Croix Chairman Lewis Taylor donate $1,000 to the Clinton/Gore campaign.
July 15, 1996 – The Lower Sioux Community donates $5,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
August 2, 1996 – The Mdewakanton Sioux donates $25,000 to the DNC.
August 30, 1996 – Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in a letter to Senator John McCain denies that he ever discussed Ickes, or a deadline in his conversation with pro-casino lobbyist Paul Eckstein on July 14, 1995.
September 2nd – Labor Day, 1996 – President Clinton campaigns in DePere, Wisconsin and while preparing for the campaign tour asks then Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to bring him up to date on the casino issue.
September 4, 1996 – The Oneida Tribe donates $50,000 to the DNC.
October 7, 1996 – The Mdewakanton Sioux donate $25,000 to the DNC.
October 9, 1996 – The Mdewakanton Sioux donate $25,000 to the DNC.
November 4, 1996 – The Leech Lake Chippewa donate $5,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. The St. Croix Tribal Council donates $20,000 to the DNC.
November 6, 1996 – Oneida Chair Deborah Doxtator donates $2,000 to the DNC.
January 30, 1997 – The Oneida Tribe donates $3,000 to the DNC.
March, 1997 – Federal Judge Barbara Crabb in the Four Feathers lawsuit against Interior writes in a ruling for discovery, “there is a distinct possibility that improper political influence affected” the decision.
May 1, 1997 – The Leech Lake Chippewa donate $1,000 to the DNC.
September 9, 1997 – Don Fowler testifies before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee acknowledging that he met with tribal leaders in April 1995 and later contacted administration officials on their behalf. “To my recollection I did not suggest a result, did not ask for an outcome. I just asked that it be reviewed.” “Whatever they contributed or didn’t contribute had nothing to do with my action in that regard,” he said.
September 17, 1997 – Lawyers for the Four Feathers partnership are given a copy of anti-casino lobbyist Larry Kitto’s full calender. Kitto’s calender indicates that he had promised at least $50,000 to the DNC and 25 Ð $1,000 donations to the Clinton/Gore campaign.
September 25, 1997 – Lobbyist Larry Kitto is deposed by lawyers for the Four Feathers casino project.
October 8, 1997 – A combative Harold Ickes tells the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that he cannot remember taking part in key events that led to the denial of the proposed casino.
October 9, 1997 – Babbitt sends a letter of the Senate Government Affairs Committee saying he may have told pro-casino lobbyist Paul Eckstein that Ickes had ordered him to make a decision that day (July 14, 1995) but only invoked Ickes’ name to get him out of the office during an “awkward meeting.”
October 17, 1997 – The White House claims Executive or other Privileges in protecting memos regarding the casino project. Some documents are leaked to the Associated Press. The memos are summarized for presentation to Judge Crabb in the Madison, Wisconsin lawsuit against Interior. Two of the memos held secret are dated Oct. 22 and 23, 1996
October 24, 1997 – The Justice Department confirms that the issue of the Hudson casino project is under a preliminary 30-day criminal probe review. Interior spokesman Mike Gauldin confirms that Justice has requested permission to interview several Interior staff members.
October 30, 1997 – Bruce Babbitt appearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee denies misleading pro-casino lobbyist Paul Eckstein, or that he invoked Ickes’ name on July 14, 1995. He says he only told Eckstein that he said his superiors expected him to make a decision.
November 13, 1997 – Attorney General Janet Reno extends the Justice Department inquiry into Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s activities in the casino application for another 60 days, in a move that is reported to be bringing the investigation of Babbitt closer to the appointment of an independent investigative counsel.
November, 1997 – Oneida Lobbyist Bill Gollnick in November of 1997 says the donations to the DNC were specifically to be used as a “Get out the vote” campaign in Indian Country during 1996, to establish an Indian desk at the DNC and for voter registration. Gollnick denies that the donations from the Oneida Tribe are tied to the defeat of the Hudson casino application. Gollnick also tell NFIC editor Paul DeMain, on November 12th, that when we examine the record, “we would find that Oneida was not represented at those meetings.”
The information contained in this article was acquired from the Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsible Politics, The Native American Press, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, The Associated Press, The New York Times and KahliWisaks.