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Babbitt says politics had no role in Indian casino decision

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied Thursday that partisan politics prompted him to reject an American Indian casino project in Wisconsin. But his old friend and former law partner raised questions about the secretary's account.

"The allegations that there was improper White House or DNC influence and that I was a conduit for that influence are demonstrably false," Babbitt testified before the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses.

On key details, however, Babbitt found himself at odds with Paul Eckstein, a close associate of 30 years who had been hired to lobby for the casino by three Wisconsin Chippewa tribes and a racetrack operator. The tribes allege that their deal was rejected because of the political clout _ and campaign contributions _ of tribes opposing it.

The clash came as investigators suggested that the committee's months-long hearing may be over. Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is expected soon to decide whether to continue public hearings in the investigation, which officially expires at year's end.

Babbitt and Eckstein found themselves with differing recollections Thursday as they appeared one after the other before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

"Either you are telling the truth or you are lying," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told Eckstein. "Or Secretary Babbitt is telling the truth or he is lying."

Eckstein, who testified first, said Babbitt had told him during a meeting on July 14, 1995, that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes had pressed Babbitt to make a decision that day on the casino.

Eckstein also said that Babbitt mentioned political contributions to the Democrats by some Native American tribes.

"There's no doubt at all," Eckstein said of his recollections.

Babbitt's memory of the meeting was hazy. He insisted, however, that he had never talked to anyone at the White House about the casino but may have briefly invoked Ickes' name with Eckstein to cut short their meeting. Babbitt said he could not recall whether campaign contributions came up during the talk.

"I have no recollection of any conversation to that effect," Babbitt said over and over as Thompson pressed the point.