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Babbitt should speak up

As a U.S. senator and now as head of the Department of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt has been one of government's good guys, a committed public servant known for his candor and untainted by scandal. Until now. It appears even Babbitt was sucked into the fund-raising sewer by President Clinton's re-election campaign, and his clumsy efforts to protect the White House are staining his own reputation.

Despite his denials, there are strong indications that Babbitt's decision to deny a gambling casino license sought by three Chippewa Indian tribes was improperly influenced by Clinton aides obsessed with raising campaign money.

The tribes sought the Interior Department's permission in 1993 to open a casino. In April 1995, a Democratic lobbyist representing Indian tribes who feared competition for their own casinos spoke to Clinton about the issue. The lobbyist also talked to Democratic National Committee Chairman Donald Fowler and to Harold Ickes, a top Clinton aide and fund-raiser. Fowler called Ickes and someone at the Interior Department; Ickes' aides called Babbitt at least three times.

The pressure tactics worked. Babbitt rejected the Chippewa tribes' request in July, even though the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had recommended that the casino be approved. The tribes who opposed the casino contributed more than $300,000 to the Democrats, with most of it coming within days after Babbitt made his decision. These facts alone are enough to raise suspicions of an illegal connection between the casino permit and the campaign contributions.

There is more. Babbitt has given conflicting accounts to Congress about a conversation he had about the casino decision with Paul Eckstein, a long-time friend who lobbied for the Chippewa tribes. Eckstein says Babbitt told him he had been directed by Ickes to make a quick decision (translation: reject the casino request). He says Babbitt also indicated that the opposing tribes made large contributions to the Democrats.

In a letter to Sen. John McCain in August 1996, Babbitt denied Eckstein's account. But in a letter this month to Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses, Babbitt changed his story. He said he mentioned Ickes to Eckstein, but only as a way to get rid of his persistent friend.

When Babbitt appears before Thompson's committee this week, he will have to do better than that. The senators will expect less tap dancing and more straight talk. Babbitt should stop covering up the sins of the White House before more damage is done to his own reputation.

This is one of the most serious, clear-cut allegations of corruption to bubble out of the fund-raising morass so far. A government agency took sudden, unexpected action that was quickly followed by significant campaign contributions. There has to be a reason why Babbitt acted so out of character when confronted with statements by a trusted friend. There has to be a reason why the Clinton administration is trying so hard to keep secret notes and memos from the president and his aides that concern the casino license.

It is up to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Congress to find the answers to those questions and share them with the rest of us.