IT'S POPULAR these days to complain about the independent counsel law and how Attorney General Janet Reno has chosen to interpret it.
She's too slow to trigger the statute, some complain. Others suggest the probes themselves are too long, too expensive and don't come up with much.
Those critics may all be correct. But last week's indictment of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisnernos makes another case: that the independent counsel law sometimes functions exactly as its authors intended, creating a vehicle for the investigation of possible wrongdoing in high places as untainted by politics as possible.
After the Justice Department determined that there was credible evidence Mr. Cisneros had violated the law, David Barrett was named to head the inquiry in 1995. Two years later Mr. Barrett's conclusions have surfaced in the form of a grand jury's 66-page felony indictment of Mr. Cisneros.
Among the allegations are that Mr. Cisneros during a routine background investigation after his nomination to the Clinton Cabinet lied to the FBI about the amount and duration of cash payments to a former girlfriend to buy her silence. The 18 felony counts -- each carrying a maximum prison term of five years -- also include conspiracy and obstruction of justice allegations.
In addition, the indictment also contained charges of conspiracy against the former girlfriend and two people who worked for Mr. Cisneros when he ran a small company in Texas. It says Mr. Cisneros ordered the two employees to lie to federal agents conducting the background check and that he promised them government jobs in exchange for their help.
Such charges are no small matter when they involve a public official, especially one at the Cabinet level. If true, they're the sort of violations that have done much to fuel public distrust of government.
Mr. Cisneros must, of course, be presumed innocent unless Mr. Barrett proves otherwise; and the former San Antonio mayor's lawyers have pledged to vigorously fight the government's case.
But critics of the Justice Department and the special counsel law will need to look elsewhere for support of their claims that the system is broken.
Pub Date: 12/17/97