David M. Barrett, investigator of HUD secretary, dies at 76

March 1

David M. Barrett, a special independent counsel who spent more than a decade in a largely futile effort to press corruption charges against former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, died Jan. 22 at a daughter’s home in New York. He was 76.

He had congestive heart failure, his son, Peter Barrett, said.

When Mr. Barrett was appointed special counsel in May 1995, his mission was to determine whether Cisneros, who was President Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary at the time, had lied to the FBI during a background check about the amount of money he had paid his former mistress in Texas.

“The first task here is to be fair,” Mr. Barrett said at the time. “Part of fairness is alacrity, and I intend to do this as quickly as is consistent with completeness.”

The resulting investigation dragged on year after year, as Mr. Barrett brought charges that never stuck. Long after the law authorizing independent counsels had expired, Mr. Barrett stayed on the job, ultimately spending $21 million in taxpayer money in the longest special counsel investigation in history.


David M. Barrett, independent counsel who led a decade-long investigation of HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, died Jan. 22 at 76. (Courtesy of Family)

The early facts of the case were these: Cisneros admitted to having had an affair with Linda Medlar (later known as Linda Jones) when he was mayor of San Antonio in the late 1980s. He said he gave her occasional payments through the early 1990s, but no more than $10,000 a year, and never more than $2,500 at a time.

“In fact, he paid her more than $2,500 at various times, and his total annual payments to her were between $42,000 and $60,000,” Attorney General Janet Reno said as she authorized the special counsel investigation.

Mr. Barrett, who had a private law practice in Washington, was picked by a three-judge panel to lead the fact-finding mission. He had earlier led an 18-month special inquiry into corruption by Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa.), causing Flood to resign from Congress in 1980.

At first, Mr. Barrett was praised, particularly by Republican congressmen. He had been a onetime Republican congressional candidate in Indiana and, in 1980, was part of a group called Lawyers for Reagan. He had been in charge of the transition team at the Securities and Exchange Commission after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.

Fifteen years later, as special counsel, Mr. Barrett hired a staff of almost 30, including six full-time lawyers, to look into Cisneros’s payments to his mistress. Several FBI agents were assigned to help him on the case.

“We moving ahead as quickly as we can, being consistent with fairness,” Mr. Barrett said in October 1997.

In December 1997, Mr. Barrett’s investigation seemed to be nearing an end when a grand jury indicted Cisneros on 18 felony counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements.

Cisneros faced 90 years in prison, but he never went to trial. In September 1999, more than two years after he left HUD, he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of lying to investigators. He was later pardoned by Clinton. The only person who went to prison was Medlar, who was convicted of bank fraud.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin said the independent counsel law “reaffirms the importance of telling the truth,” but he also directed criticism at Mr. Barrett.

“The problem with this case is that it took too long to develop and much too long to bring to judgment day,” the judge said, noting the entire case “should have been resolved a long time ago, perhaps even years ago.”

With the target of his probe convicted, it appeared that Mr. Barrett’s job was at an end. But his investigation was not yet half over.

The special counsel law had been passed in the 1970s as a response to the Watergate scandal, as a way to provide independent scrutiny of corruption by governmental officials.

Mr. Barrett had been investigated by a special counsel during a probe of influence peddling at HUD in the Reagan administration. He profited from HUD contracts on housing projects in Oklahoma but was cleared of any wrongdoing.

No fewer than six independent counsels examined corruption allegations against the Clinton administration, the best known of which was Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation of Whitewater and Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But Mr. Barrett outlasted them all. The law that created the office of an independent counsel expired in 1999. Mr. Barrett’s pursuit drew comparisons to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the fictional lawsuit in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” that dragged on for decades.

“I want to conclude this investigation as soon as possible,” Mr. Barrett said again in 2001.

The scope of Mr. Barrett’s inquiry expanded to include possible charges of tax evasion, political favors and interference in his investigation by officials at the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service. But the Justice Department of President George W. Bush closed the door on Mr. Barrett, saying there was “no actual evidence” of a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Mr. Barrett’s final report appeared on Jan. 19, 2006, almost 11 years after he took office.

Democratic lawmakers criticized Mr. Barrett as an extreme example of government overreach and prosecutorial zeal run amok. Even some Republicans turned against Mr. Barrett, including former independent counsel Joseph DiGenova.

“If this doesn’t prove [the independent counsel’s] worthlessness as a governmental entity,” he told The Washington Post in 2004, “I don’t know what does.”

David Martin Barrett was born in Buffalo on April 21, 1937. He grew up in South Bend, Ind., where his father was a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Mr. Barrett graduated from Notre Dame in 1959, then served as a Navy officer. He received his law degree in 1965 from Georgetown University, where he was an editor of the law review.

In the 1960s, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, taught at Notre Dame and was a country prosecutor in Indiana. He worked in Tulsa in the 1970s before establishing a private law practice in Washington in 1975.

Survivors include his wife, Kathleen O’Hara Barrett of Rehoboth Beach, Del.; four children, Kristin Patterson of Milford, Del., Peter Barrett of Washington, Julie Barrett Hanlon of Rye, N.Y., and Laura Plunkett of Tarrytown, N.Y.; and nine grandchildren.

A daughter, Megan Barrett, died in 2008.

By the time Mr. Barrett issued his special counsel report in 2006, Cisneros, the putative subject of his investigation, had left HUD, had spent three years as president of the Spanish-language TV network Univision and had returned to San Antonio to start a housing development company.

“I leave it to Mr. Barrett to do his job,” Cisneros said in 2001, “and I’ll do mine.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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