A three-judge federal panel Thursday named Carol Elder Bruce, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, as an independent counsel to investigate whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to the Senate about his role in rejecting an Indian casino in Wisconsin.
The judges said that Bruce should determine whether Babbitt made false statements when he swore to senators last October that his decision turning down a casino application in 1996 by three Indian tribes had nothing to do with Democratic campaign contributions made by opponents of the gaming proposal.
The judges said that Bruce may venture beyond a simple perjury investigation to determine "whether any violation of federal criminal law occurred" in the department's consideration of the tribes' off-reservation casino request.
However, the appellate panel ignored Republican requests that the independent counsel be given a broad enough mandate to investigate a wide range of improper or allegedly illegal Democratic campaign contributions in the 1996 election.
Bruce's appointment marks the fifth independent investigation of a Clinton Cabinet member since the administration took office in January 1993. One independent counsel, Daniel Pearson, resigned two years ago after his subject, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia.
Three others are still pursuing investigations, one into the Whitewater land deal and more recent allegations of presidential wrongdoing, another into charges that former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros lied to FBI agents, and the third into allegations that former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted gratuities from companies doing business with his department.
In addition, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno recently has told the judges that she needs more time to decide whether an outside counsel will be needed to look into allegations that Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman illegally accepted cash to help business interests while she served as a White House aide.
The appointment of Bruce, 48, a former deputy independent counsel in an investigation that cleared Ronald Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III of criminal wrongdoing in the late 1980s, was sought by Reno in a written submission to the appellate court last month.
Babbitt has strongly denied wrongdoing, saying that political influence did not play any role in the denial of the casino application. He has said that the decision followed departmental guidelines, noting that the proposed casino at Hudson, Wis., was opposed by the local community.
Bruce declined to comment on her assignment, except to say that she "will promptly begin an investigation with the goal of thoughtfully and expeditiously" discharging her responsibilities.
In a rare political statement on such appointments, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson objected to Bruce because she once worked closely with Charles F. C. Ruff, now the White House counsel, when their private law firm was defending Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in a Senate ethics investigation. That investigation examined whether five senators had sought to assist savings and loan magnate Charles H. Keating in return for campaign contributions. Glenn was cleared of wrongdoing in 1991 but had "exercised poor judgment," investigators said.
Nicholson also objected to Bruce's role in the Meese inquiry. Although the investigation cleared Meese, it was critical of his conduct.
Bruce won praise from other quarters.
Former U.S. Atty. Joseph diGenova, who once supervised Bruce as an assistant prosecutor in Washington, called her "a fine choice by the court and a very seasoned litigator." DiGenova, a former Republican-appointed chief prosecutor, insisted that Bruce, while a Democrat, "is not partisan or politically active."
During a decade as a federal prosecutor here, Bruce managed more than 100 grand jury investigations into felony charges and prosecuted dozens of other crimes. She specialized in public corruption and international terrorism cases, including the 1982 conviction of former CIA operative Edwin Wilson for helping train terrorists in Libya.
Associates said that she was one of the first women to take on complex prosecutions in the U.S. attorney's office here.
Later, as a private lawyer, she represented families suing Libya for its alleged role in the terrorist bombing of Pan American Airways Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Times Chief Washington Correspondent Jack Nelson contributed to this story.
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Profile: Carol Elder Bruce
* Born: June 7, 1949, East Orange, N.J.
* Education: Bachelor's degree and law degree from George Washington University in Washington.
* Career: Assistant U.S. attorney, District of Columbia, 1975 to 1985. Deputy independent counsel, 1987 to 1988, under James C. McKay, who was investigating conflict-of-interest charges against Ronald Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III, who was cleared. Specialist in white-collar crime, international terrorism and complex civil litigation. Member of American Bar Assn. and the D.C. Bar Board of Governors.
* Personal: Married and mother of three children. Democrat but never active in politics.