Investigation on Former Housing Secretary Ends
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RAY SUAREZ: On March 14, 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno called for a court-appointed independent counsel to investigate President Clinton’s housing secretary, Henry Cisneros.
Once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, the former mayor of San Antonio was accused of lying to the FBI during his confirmation process background check about payments he made to a former mistress.
HENRY CISNEROS: (1995) I am hopeful that the investigation will be completed expeditiously. And I’m confident the independent counsel will conclude that I did not engage in criminal wrongdoing.
RAY SUAREZ: Cisneros later was indicted on 18 counts of conspiracy, giving false statements, and obstruction of justice.
He eventually pled guilty to just one misdemeanor count and paid a $10,000 fine. Cisneros served no jail time and received a pardon from President Clinton on the president’s last day in office.
However, the work of the independent counsel, Attorney David Barrett, didn’t conclude until he issued his final report today, 11 years after his work began at a cost of more than $21 million.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Cisneros investigation we’re joined by New York Times reporter Neil Lewis, who obtained an advance copy of the investigation’s final report and wrote about it in today’s paper.
Neil, let’s go back to the mid ’90s. This all begins with the background investigation into Henry Cisneros as he’s being vetted for a cabinet job?
NEIL LEWIS: That’s right, Ray. Henry Cisneros, an up and coming Democratic politician from Texas, was President Clinton’s choice to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And for these positions you undergo a background check and are interviewed by the FBI.
In the case of Mr. Cisneros it appeared later that there was an allegation that he had lied during that interview with the FBI, particularly about payments he’d made to a former mistress.
That may not be surprising to anybody, that someone might lie about payments to a former mistress, but it was a violation of the law. And under the independent counsel statute that was in effect at the time, this required an appointment, an appointment of a special prosecutor to examine this.
The law was a post-Watergate reform to ensure that one cabinet officer — the attorney general, the head of the Justice Department — would investigate a fellow cabinet officer.
RAY SUAREZ: So did the Barrett investigation, in fact, generate the information that resulted in the guilty plea from the former secretary?
NEIL LEWIS: It did. After a few years — the investigation began in 1995 — in 1999, on the eve of a trial Mr. Cisneros pled guilty to a misdemeanor.
It is important to point out that he did so after about to go to trial on 18 felony counts. And at the time it seemed that the case would be over because that is what the initial purpose of the investigation was. And he had, as you said, pled guilty, paid a $10,000 fine, was not even put on probation.
RAY SUAREZ: So how come the special counsel’s investigation didn’t end right then and there? You had conviction, payment of the fine. Cisneros, in fact, was no longer even in government service anymore.
NEIL LEWIS: Indeed. That is a question that has roiled the waters for a while. Even though it seemed to be over and at the time that Mr. Cisneros pled guilty most people thought it was over, but the special counsel, Mr. Barrett, went on for several more years to the consternation of the critics of the independent counsel law.
And by this time in 1999 the law was no longer in favor of either party. By then Republicans had felt pretty battered by the independent counsel investigation of the Reagan administration in Iran-Contra. And by then of course Democrats felt ill used by the investigation of Whitewater, which touched on President and Mrs. Clinton.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve seen the final report. Is there any indication from Mr. Barrett himself as to what he found out in the subsequent years after the — the initial Cisneros investigation was over?
NEIL LEWIS: Sure. Well, the report first of all tells us why things dragged on. They dragged on because there was this bitter conflict between Mr. Barrett, the special prosecutor, and the Justice Department about what Mr. Barrett has asserted was a seaming cover-up by Justice Department and Internal Revenue officials to his efforts to investigate a further charge against Mr. Cisneros, one he didn’t start out with, but tax evasion.
And he said that he raised this. And he was met by resistance by the department. And he became outraged and took it forward.
Meanwhile, the professionals in the Department of Justice and IRS said there really was not a case to prosecute here. And so he became a symbol of what were some of the complaints about the independent counsel system — that if you give a prosecutor unlimited money, unlimited time and one target, he or she will go on for as long as it takes to find too something.
And it had a political dimension to it as well because it had been perceived that Mr. Barrett was after something having to do with the idea that the Clinton administration, officials in the Clinton administration, I should say, didn’t let him follow up.
And so Republicans in Congress were eager to have him continue. And Democrats said, wait a minute this guy has spent more than ten years on this — enough.
In the end, the report has — I should be very clear in this, only Mr. Barrett’s suspicions that Mr. Cisneros may have evaded taxes in connection with the payments to his mistress.
And so in essence it’s his complaint saying I had reason to investigate but I was stymied. And that’s what took me so long.
The other side says, you know, this — and they say so in the report — because under the law people who are accused of any kind of wrongdoing are entitled to respond — and in this report of more than 700 pages, some of the Justice Department officials respond and describe Mr. Barrett as an out-of-control prosecutor who didn’t understand the law, who is on an extreme fishing expedition, and of course I would say their strongest case is in the fact that he brought these eighteen felony counts against Mr. Cisneros, ended up getting a guilty plea on one misdemeanor count.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the final years of the investigation didn’t yield any indictments. But what was the Barrett investigation unit spending all that money on in the final years?
NEIL LEWIS: A fine question and there’s no clear answer. The General Accountability Office — which under the law is obliged to audit the independent counsels — and of course Mr. Barrett is the last one — the law was repealed or let die in 1999, put the total figure at $21 million and about $2 million a year he was spending. And it did not go into detail as to how he spent the money.
Mr. Barrett has pointed out that the GAO, the General Accountability Office, found no wrongdoing. But they also did point out in the audit or it was pointed out that he was spending in these later years of this investigation which was really just a tussle, the same amount of money that Patrick Fitzgerald the special prosecutor investigating the disclosure of CIA officer’s identity. And we all know that was a very vibrant and robust investigation.
So he was going — this is Mr. Barrett now, was maintaining this office of prosecutors up until recently. And the explanation as to where the money went or precisely how it was spent, according to the GAO, nothing, there was no malfeasance of how it was spent. But it’s unclear as to exactly how it was spent.
RAY SUAREZ: Neil Lewis of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.
NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Ray.