For months Attorney General Janet Reno defied reason and commonsense by turning back demands that she seek an independent counsel to probe widespread allegations of improper and illegal White House and Democratic Party fund-raising activities in the 1996 elections.
Well, White House and Democrats have plenty to fear now. Reno's request Wednesday for an independent counsel to look into whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to the Senate about his role in rejecting an Indian casino in Wisconsin could blow open the entire fund-raising mess.
Even though Reno's request calls for the probe to be limited to the narrow issue of determining the truth or falsity of Babbitt's testimony, the history of independent counsels show they have no trouble widening their mandate when they can show cause.
There could be plenty of cause here. The nub of the case: Babbitt told senators his 1995 decision to reject a request by three poor Wisconsin Indian tribes to open a gambling casino had nothing to do with wealthy, rival casino tribes -- opposed to the competition -- donating $286,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
A lobbyist and longtime friend of Babbitt testified the interior secretary told him the White House ordered the agency to turn down the casino. Babbitt denies the White House interfered. That's the conflicting testimony the independent counsel must resolve.
But it's hard to see how that can be done without inquiring into why top White House officials, including then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, had such intense interest in a minor policy decision at Interior -- unless it had to do with that huge campaign donation. The case reeks of influence peddling -- a violation of federal law.
There is also evidence that Vice President Al Gore -- or at least his office -- had a hand in the casino matter, even though Gore's aides testified they weren't involved.
Most intriguing, though, is an undated note to Panetta released by the House Judiciary Committee and reproduced in this week's Human Events. "Leon," it says, "What's the deal on the Wisconsin tribe Indian dispute? BC." (Clinton signs his memos BC).
Incidentally, the Babbitt probe will mark the fifth independent counsel named to investigate this administration. The others are Whitewater and related probes of Clinton's conduct; former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and the late Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown.
Whatever happened to candidate Clinton's 1992 campaign promise that he would give the nation the most ethical administration in U.S. history?