When he was being screened for appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Henry Cisneros told FBI agents a falsehood about his financial relationship with his former mistress. He now says it wasn't a lie -- at least not a felonious one -- and he may be right. Some lawyers in the Justice Department agree with his lawyers on that.
But not telling federal officials the truth in a situation in which the truth is expected is a serious enough mistake to disqualify Mr. Cisneros from holding a position of trust in the cabinet. He has offered to resign as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and President Clinton should accept his offer.
An official who must testify before Congress and explain to mayors and governors why one city gets federal assistance and another doesn't has to be credible. Mr. Cisneros, as even his fondest champions must admit, is no longer that.
Having said that, we also would say that the falsehood Mr. Cisneros told does not seem serious enough or related in any way to official duties closely enough to warrant his being subjected to the torture rack of an independent counsel investigation. These are expensive to all concerned -- subject and taxpayers -- and often seem to go on forever. The last independent counsel investigation of officials at HUD is now in its sixth year -- and produced its latest plea this week.
The question of the degree of Mr. Cisneros' culpability ought to have been decided within the Justice Department. Attorney General Janet Reno has had six months to make a decision and, as usual in this administration, she chose to resolve conflicting advice from her aides, including career lawyers who specialize in cases involving public officials, by asking for an independent counsel.
Ms. Reno justified this approach by saying the Cisneros situation was "a close and difficult factual and legal issue." That is also a justification for deciding not to throw in the towel and asking for an independent counsel.
The attorney general ought to be able to settle such issues within the department. She has the resources, she has the authority and she has the responsibility. Intended or not, her refusal to do that casts a shadow on her executive skills and the ability of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and the Public Integrity Section to do their job.