Too Narrow a Probe

Yes, we have called repeatedly for an independent counsel to look into campaign donations and influence buying. But the hope was a broad probe of Clinton-Gore fund-raising practices. Instead, the public will now get a narrow look at one case that landed, regrettably we think, in Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's lap.

What's involved is Interior's rejection, in 1995, of an application by Chippewa Indians to build a casino off their reservation at a failing dog track in Wisconsin. The fiercest opposition to this project came from other tribes in Minnesota whose established casinos would face competition from the new one. Those tribes hired counsel with strong connections to the Democratic Party and White House. Their lawyers got the ear of the president and close aides. Outcome: a rejected application and, soon after, a nearly $300,000 donation to the Democrats' reelection effort for Clinton-Gore.

In the course of all this, Secretary Babbitt had a conversation with a former legal colleague who was representing the Chippewas. Reports of that conversation conflict. The former colleague said under oath that the secretary indicated he was pressured by Clinton's then assistant chief of staff Harold Ickes to turn down the Chippewa application. The ex-colleague also said Babbitt mentioned money the other tribes were prepared to give the Democrats. Babbitt first denied having referred to Ickes, but later recalled mentioning him in an effort to end an awkward conversation. He firmly asserts he never raised the issue of campaign donations.

It's a disturbing picture, and it left little room for Attorney General Janet Reno to do anything but appoint yet another independent counsel. The counsel's mandate is limited to whether Babbitt perjured himself in testimony before Congress. But the door is also open to probe whether promises of contributions swayed the Interior Department decision.

In Mr. Babbitt's favor are departmental records and testimony affirming that the casino decision was made on the basis of local opposition to the project, not political arm-twisting. Such opposition would weigh heavily in the case of a casino being built away from Indian land. Also in the secretary's favor is a long record of public service free of any taint of corruption.

We hope this investigation manages to throw some added light on the wider fund-raising mania that seized American presidential politics in the '96 election campaign.

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