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Fund-raising Scandals Slow Commission Appointments

By John F. Harris
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Democratic fund-raising controversy buffeting the White House has led to delays in President Clinton naming his appointments to a national commission to study the social and economic costs of gambling.

Already four months overdue, Clinton will probably take another week or more before naming his three appointments to the nine-member commission, according to administration officials familiar with the selection process. The White House earlier this month had given some groups following the issue the impression his appointments were imminent.

But criticism that Clinton - allegedly influenced by contributions to the Democratic National Committee from gambling supporters in Las Vegas and in the Native American community - might tilt the panel in favor of the industry caused the White House to slow the process down, according to officials. The gambling commission, they said, has prompted extended discussion at senior levels of the White House, including at least one meeting in which Clinton participated.

The agonizing over the commission appointments shows how the furor over Clinton's role in directing the DNC's massive 1996 fund-raising effort - and the allegations that donors may have traded large gifts for special access and influence on policy - has added a sensitive new political dimension to White House decisions that in other times would have been fairly routine.

As a practical matter, White House officials are debating just one of the three picks. Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman William Bible, that state's top regulator, is an all-but-certain selection, according to administration officials. They said the same is true of Richard Leone, who has been publicly critical of gambling in the past.

Some six names are being vetted by the White House counsel's office for the third slot. Both gambling foes and supporters regard this third pick as critical to the direction the commission will take.

That's because the six people already named by congressional leaders from both parties have left the panel evenly split between those considered hostile to gambling and those expected to be more supportive. Clinton's picks will be dissected to see if they tilt the commission one way or other.

This is a problem that the White House brought on itself because of the delay. Had Clinton acted before Congress and closer to the Oct. 2 deadline set in the legislation creating the commission, he would not have borne the burden of naming the final three appointments.

As it is, whatever decision he makes seems destined to spur controversy. Native American groups expect Clinton to select one of their own for the seat, to represent the huge financial stake they have in the casinos on reservations.

Rick Hill, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, said it would be a "huge disappointment" and would have "racist" overtones if Native American interests weren't represented on the commission. Some of the six people under consideration at the White House are Native Americans, officials said.

But picking one of them would have negative consequences of its own. Several news organizations in recent weeks have publicized the large sums Indian tribes have contributed to the Democratic National Committee. The White House, according to an administration official, has already dropped one Native American, Minnesota lawyer Tad Johnson, as a serious contender for the panel because of concern that his representation of a tribe with casino interests would generate unwelcome controversy.

Already, leading gambling opponents are upset with Clinton's apparent choice of Bible. While the White House officials have said they regard him as a neutral - neither pro- nor anti-gambling - this view doesn't fly with gambling critics.

Some trace Clinton's decision to name Bible to the help the $40-billion-a-year gambling industry gave Democrats last year. After initially leaning toward the Republicans, many top Las Vegas businessmen, including casino owner Steve Wynn, later gave substantial sums to the Democrats. Wynn played golf with Clinton last May, the same day he and other casino owners turned out at a DNC fund-raiser.

If Clinton selects appointees who tilt the commission toward gambling, "It will be a sign that the whole process is corrupt," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va, a leading gambling critic and a leader in creating the commission.

Wolf said the White House is stalling on its appointments because "they're getting afraid" of the adverse publicity.