Speculation grows over Cisneros' fate

October 05, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- One day after ethics charges toppled Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, speculation intensified yesterday about the future of another member of the Clinton Cabinet who is under ethical scrutiny: Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development.

A White House official said Mr. Cisneros has told friends that he would be willing to resign if the controversy surrounding his payments to a former girlfriend became a political liability for the president. Legislative aides involved in housing issues said they feared that in the climate of scrutiny that led to Mr. Espy's forced resignation, "Cisneros is right behind him," as one put it.

For his part, Mr. Cisneros said that he has not told the White House that he was prepared to resign. "We've had no discussions about a resignation, and I have not offered a resignation," Mr. Cisneros said yesterday.

White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said that Mr. Cisneros continued to "serve with the confidence of the president." At the same time, she said, "I am sure that Secretary Cisneros would step aside if he believed he were an embarrassment to the White House or that the White House wishes him to do so."

Mr. Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio, whose well-publicized extramarital affair rocked his promising political career in the late 1980s, is under investigation by the Justice Department. The investigators are trying to determine whether he misled FBI agents who were conducting a background check for his Cabinet appointment about how much money he paid his former girlfriend, Linda Medlar.

By Oct. 14, Attorney General Janet Reno will decide whether to proceed with a wider investigation of Mr. Cisneros that could result in the appointment of an independent counsel. To have another Cabinet member in turmoil would be embarrassing and damaging for Mr. Clinton, especially on the heels of the Espy resignation.

'We'll see where we are'

And Mr. Cisneros, who has generally been applauded for his stewardship of the housing department, suggested yesterday that the outcome of the Justice inquiry could influence his fate.

"I figure the people who are investigating it know what they're doing," he said. "At the conclusion of that process, we'll see where we are."

His lawyer, Cono Namorato, acknowledged that the controversy has become "something of distraction" for Mr. Cisneros but insisted that it was "not interfering with his ability to run HUD."

But with tapes of phone conversations between Mr. Cisneros and Ms. Medlar, secretly taped by her over three years, circulating widely, the soap-opera-like saga has deeply embarrassed a public official who has always moved with measured grace.

What's more, it has further damaged the dossier of a dynamic, charismatic politician -- a hero to the Hispanic community and a one-time rising star in the Democratic Party who, at age 37, was among those interviewed by presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale as a potential running mate.

Ms. Medlar, a former political fund-raiser now living in Lubbock, Texas, sued Mr. Cisneros in July for $256,000, claiming that he reneged on an understanding to pay her $4,000 a month until her daughter finished college in 1999.

Although he supported Ms. Medlar from 1990 until the middle of 1993, when he said he could no longer afford it, Mr. Cisneros has denied having any such agreement, and his lawyer characterized her actions as those of a jilted lover trying to exact revenge.

Recently, Ms. Medlar sold two tapes and 140 pages of transcripts of her conversations with Mr. Cisneros for $15,000 to NBC's "Inside Edition." The tabloid TV show broadcast excerpts and an interview with Ms. Medlar last month, sparking the current Justice Department probe.

In the conversations, the two rehash the remnants of their romance and fret about the disclosure of Mr. Cisneros' payments to Ms. Medlar.

Mr. Cisneros -- who admitted his infidelity in 1988 and then bowed out of public life and into a lucrative investment banking practice -- has said that he voluntarily made payments to Ms. Medlar once their affair ended, because the publicity had made it hard for her to find work.

Ms. Medlar says that, over three years, Mr. Cisneros paid her about $200,000, a figure Mr. Cisneros does not dispute. But on the tapes and transcripts, he tells Ms. Medlar that he believes the FBI was aware of $60,000 in payments and describes the agents as "gossipers and scandalizers" who love "things that have to do with sex and intimacy" but are "real bad at tracking down financial things."

Tale of the tape

The tapes provide no evidence of wrongdoing. But they have forced Mr. Cisneros to acknowledge that he made payments of $50,000 to Ms. Medlar from February through June 1993, contradicting his public statement last July that he had not "provided any assistance" to Ms. Medlar since joining the administration.

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