Probe of Cisneros will not let go 2 1/2 years, $4 million and no end in sight

November 30, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After 30 months and $4 million, the special prosecutor investigating misstatements by Henry G. Cisneros has expanded the scope of his probe, brought felony charges against Cisneros' former mistress and members of her family -- and may now be targeting the White House itself.

In so doing, the special prosecutor, David M. Barrett, has rekindled a debate over the independent counsel law, notably the ease with which such prosecutors can turn small investigations into big ones, and whether they are exceeding the authority intended by Congress.

Barrett's investigation began in mid-1995 after Attorney General Janet Reno learned that in the future housing secretary's FBI background check, Cisneros had underreported the amount of money he had paid to Linda D. Medlar, his former mistress.

Cisneros told FBI agents that he had given Medlar less than $40,000 over the previous four years. The true figure was closer to $250,000, Reno said in requesting a special counsel.

Cisneros publicly acknowledged providing wrong information, but his attorneys insisted from the beginning that he broke no law.

They maintained that the artificially lower payment figures he provided the FBI do not constitute the "material false statements" prohibited in the Ethics in Government Act. FBI officials scoffed at this defense, telling Reno that background checks would become meaningless if Cabinet appointees were allowed to lie to agents.

Reno, in tossing the issue to a special prosecutor, asked him to address this narrow dispute over the intent of the law.

Instead, he has pursued a wide-ranging investigation that sources say has been expanded once by a three-judge panel -- over the objections of the Justice Department -- and may now be heading into the White House.

Sources say Barrett, who declined to comment directly, is seeking phone records of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section because he suspects lawyers there came under pressure from the White House to oppose expanding the probe.

This line of inquiry is potentially explosive, but Barrett's investigation has received scant public attention. This is partly because the Cisneros probe has been overshadowed by the Whitewater investigation. Also, most of Barrett's actions have been taken under a cover of public silence, sealed motions and federal court gag orders.

But the probe has managed to provoke the interest of some influential members of Congress, including those who've supported the independent counsel system in the past.

One of them, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, is so alarmed he may ask Reno to fire Barrett, an extraordinary step.

"I am troubled by the time taken, the money spent and the efforts to broaden the scope of the investigation in ways that may not even have been contemplated under the statute," said Levin.

Asked to respond to his critics, Barrett replied through a lawyer on his staff that he is not obsessed, just methodical, and that thorough investigations take time.

"Most of these things are much more complicated than they appear at the outset of the investigation," explained Ed Page, a prosecutor in Barrett's office. "It's been a complex process."

But longtime critics of the process say that the Barrett investigation underscores their main complaint about the independent counsel statute -- that it puts too much power in the hands of un-elected lawyers burdened by almost none of a traditional prosecutor's normal constraints.

"If you give someone a mission to root out corruption and give them an unlimited budget and unlimited time, they tend to find something to prosecute," said Theodore B. Olson, a former Reagan administration official targeted but never indicted by a special prosecutor. "They become convinced of the self-righteousness of their cause."

Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, has introduced legislation that would make it harder to appoint special prosecutors -- and harder for them to expand their probes.

He believes the law was intended to explore larger allegations, such as China attempting to influence U.S. elections -- and not for cases such as the Cisneros investigation, which he termed "a misuse of taxpayer funds."

The Cisneros investigation "was supposed to be this simple little case," said Olson. "They often start out that way."

The affair

Henry Cisneros was a rising political star when he met Linda Medlar. He was the articulate, consensus-building mayor of San Antonio whom Latino leaders envisioned as the first Mexican-American on a national ticket. She was a little-known divorcee from a hardscrabble background who believed a life in Democratic politics might offer something better for her and her daughter.

Medlar met Cisneros while raising money for his campaigns; they became romantically involved on a 1987 fund-raising trip to New York. Cisneros was married with three children, and the affair became an open secret in Texas. In October 1988, as he prepared to leave the mayor's office, Cisneros moved in with Medlar.

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