Babbitt's Department of Ulterior

Introduction
Watching the Cash
Astroturf Opposition
Raise Your Right Hand
The Decision
Excerpts from C-SPAN
Comments/feedback
Watching the Cash
On April 28, he took tribal leaders opposed to the casino to Washington, D.C., to meet with Don Fowler, chairman of the DNC.

Tribal leader Lewis Taylor recalled in his deposition discussing the casino and offering to raise cash for the DNC.

“I told Mr. Fowler that, you know, that we’ve got a number of heavy-duty issues,” said Taylor. “We needed help and our friends are the Democrats and, therefore, I think we should donate to assist in some of these causes.”

Because the DNC raises millions of dollars for Democrats, Fowler has incredible clout and access, yet any effort to influence decisions would lead to a grand jury or a special prosecutor.

Fowler testified that he was merely letting his old friend O’Connor vent and had no ulterior motives.

Yet a recently released memorandum conveys some insight into DNC thinking.

Before Fowler met with O’Connor and the Minnesota tribes, an aide wrote him a note outlining what the delegation wished to discuss. The memo is covered in handwritten notes, including questions about fund raising among the Indians.

“What happens to our relationship with Wisconsin tribes? Do they donate to DNC? Minnesota Indians give to DNC. WI doesn’t,” read the margin scrawl.

Fowler contacted Ickes asking for assistance and reminding the White House aide that he was calling on behalf of DNC supporters.

Fowler testified that he also contacted someone, he can’t remember who, at Interior.

Babbitt’s chief of staff, Tom Collier, said in his deposition that although he could not recall talking to the head of the DNC, if Fowler contacted anyone, it would have been him.

O’Connor was far from done.

On May 9, O’Connor contacted a partner in his own firm, Thomas Schneider.

Schneider is a friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton. Their children grew up playing with each other; the families vacation together.

Schneider also co-chaired the National Finance Committee throughout Clinton’s first run for the presidency.

O’Connor asked Schneider to intervene with Ickes.

“I’m pretty certain he said he’d spoken with Harold Ickes . . . ,” Schneider recounted in deposition. “He related Ickes’ response, which was sort of he’d look into it type of response, and Pat, who’s been around Washington, understands that sometimes that can be a blow-off, and he asked if I could, knowing that I know a lot of people in the White House . . . if I’d be willing to raise the issue in order to try to get the White House to actually look into it . . . actually pay attention.”

Schneider met with Ickes on May 14 at a Clinton fund raiser at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

“I understand that you’ve been in contact with Pat O’Connor about some Indian casinos in Wisconsin,” Schneider remembers telling Ickes.

When Ickes acknowledged the contact, Schneider told the White House deputy chief of staff: “From my understanding of the issue, you ought to take it seriously.”

Ickes replied that he was on top of the matter.

“I appreciate that,” Schneider remembered responding, “but you really ought to.”

That was not good enough for O’Connor. At the end of May, he met with Schneider in Washington, and, according to Schneider, O’Connor “threw down the gauntlet.”

Schneider said O’Connor “absolutely” expected the White House to do something.

And Schneider was confident the White House would honor its commitment to him.

“I have a relationship,” explained Schneider, “that usually, if they say they do, they do . . . Harold is not someone to pull a lot of punches and we had a relationship that if he said he was going to do something, he’d do it.”

O’Connor would not be put off.

He expressed doubts about Ickes’ resolve.

So Schneider picked up the phone and got the White House deputy chief of staff on the horn.

Schneider revisited the casino issue and told Ickes that O’Connor had some doubts about Ickes’ follow-through.

“He [Ickes] laughed and just said, ‘I told you I would. I will,’” said Schneider.

Ickes’ staff began contact with Interior on May 18 and continued to call through the first week of June.

The three tribes and the dog-track partner seeking the casino permit did not mount a national lobbying effort until the closing moments of the drama, when they realized they were about to be torpedoed. They simply, and naively, went through the regulatory process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior.

In contrast, O’Connor mounted a no-stone-unturned effort in which he pushed the following buttons on behalf of his clients: President Bill Clinton, Clinton aide Bill Lindsey, White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, DNC chairman Don Fowler, DNC finance director David Mercer, Democratic senators and fund raisers Bob Kerry and Tom Daschle, the chief fund raiser for Clinton-Gore ’96 and national finance co-chair of the ’92 Clinton campaign, Tom Schneider.

As O’Connor’s lobbying with the Democratic party’s financial apparatus began to congeal into opposition against the Hudson casino, Paul Eckstein strolled into this web of campaign fund raisers on May 2 like a sheep about to be shorn by a rough-handed Basque.

On July 13, Paul Eckstein flew to Washington, D.C.

That evening Tom Schneider hosted a fund raiser in his yard for Clinton that raised $420,000; the president attended.

The next day, the Interior Department killed the Hudson casino. Paul Eckstein left Bruce Babbitt’s office, their friendship in ruins and Babbitt’s stature in the Democratic party poised to fall from pillar to pariah. Babbitt’s own comments about White House intervention and campaign contributions had set the stage for the ugliest chapter in Babbitt’s political career.

--Lacey


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As originally published in Phoenix New Times