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Warning Signs Failed to Alarm Clinton Team

By Ann Devroy and Pierre Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 15, 1995; Page A01

As President-elect Clinton prepared to take office, senior transition leader Warren Christopher announced that what he called the strictest ethics rules ever would apply to the new president's transition team and appointees.

A short time later, transition lawyers and the FBI passed along information to Christopher and others reviewing potential Cabinet members that Henry Cisneros, then under consideration for housing secretary, had made payments to a former mistress. The team turned to a close friend of Clinton's and transition adviser, Webster L. Hubbell, who concluded that Cisneros's payments should be no bar to a Cabinet position in the Clinton administration.

Now, two years later, Cisneros faces an independent counsel probe of his honesty, while two other independent counsels continue probing former agriculture secretary Mike Espy and the Whitewater affair. Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena are awaiting word from the Justice Department about whether it will move forward with requests for independent counsels. And Hubbell, who played a major role in checking Cisneros's suitability for the Clinton Cabinet, is awaiting sentencing following his guilty plea to charges he defrauded his law clients, including several federal agencies, of nearly $400,000.

The tale of Cisneros -- like that of retired Gen. Michael P.C. Carns, the nominee for CIA director who was forced to withdraw last weekend, and of many other appointment missteps -- illustrates a recurring problem for the Clinton administration: Either from political hubris or political need, the White House has repeatedly turned away from warning signals that emerged in FBI background checks or initial candidate interviews only to face a full-blown embarrassment weeks or months or years later.

In several of the most controversial recent cases, transition and White House lawyers along with the FBI turned up negative or potentially embarrassing information that Clinton officials weighed and then decided was not important enough to derail the nominee.

"You would have thought that by now it would all be perfected," said Charles O. Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is co-writing a book on the Clinton transition. "It just boggles me why people whom you normally think of as politically savvy don't seem to have the foresight to judge what is likely to be an issue."

"Sometimes I think everyone over there is drinking the same Kool-Aid. It's like mass political suicide," said a Republican whose help was sought by the White House on one recent troubled nominee.

The Cisneros announcement comes in a three-month period in which the White House had to weather appointment of an independent counsel for Espy on ethics questions and is awaiting word from the Justice Department on whether it will recommend an independent counsel to probe the private financial dealings of Brown, who once was the leading candidate to run the president's reelection campaign. It also is closely watching a Justice Department review of an allegation that Pena may have helped his former investment firm secure a contract with the Los Angeles transit system.

In the same period, the White House had to ease out CIA nominee Carns because of violations of immigration and labor regulations involved with the employment status of a Filipino domestic worker. And surgeon general nominee Henry W. Foster Jr. has been under congressional scrutiny because of what even the White House freely acknowledges was a bungled nomination process that ended up misleading key senators about Foster's performance of abortions.

The series of miscalculations has given the Republicans the same kind of ammunition the Reagan administration gave its political foes with its string of ethics problems. Midway into Reagan's first term, the Democrats produced "The Reagan Hall of Shame," a list of troubled appointees.

Yesterday, Republicans were doing their own toting up. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) said yesterday that as a candidate, Clinton pledged "his administration would be the most ethical of all time. However, in less than two years, we have already had the dark cloud of unethical behavior fall over the Clinton presidency and force resignations" by numerous officials.

Sources knowledgeable of the Cisneros vetting say that his ties to former mistress Linda Medlar and his payments to her were "fully considered" by Clinton officials in deciding whether to go forward with his nomination. In fact, transition lawyers had flagged the information, which was passed along to Christopher and other members of Clinton's inner circle.

Hubbell was asked to review the matter and requested additional information from the transition team about Medlar.

Hubbell and Clinton officials decided that Cisneros's affair with Medlar had been widely publicized in Texas and was likely a dead issue. Also, because Cisneros had appeared to be open in discussing his payments to the woman, Clinton officials determined they should not be disabling.

A number of sources said that Clinton had placed emphasis on including Hispanics in his Cabinet and Cisneros, even with the stain of the affair, was a skilled addition to the Cabinet. The fact that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and would run the nomination process, one former official said, "gave us confidence that we could surmount a lot of problems if they ever came out."

Yesterday, the White House found itself in the awkward position of explaining how giving false statements to the FBI in background checks was not a firing offense. Clinton, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said, "regrets mistakes that were made."

"It's naive to think that you will find people that are going to be universally hailed," White House counsel Abner J. Mikva said in an earlier interview as he defended the administration's record. Of 1,300 candidates for non-judicial jobs, about 10 percent were rejected or withdrew. "Overall, I think it's a pretty good record," Mikva said.

In the Foster case, congressional Democrats were appalled that the White House walked unprepared into an intensely partisan fight over Foster's acknowledgment that he performed abortions in the course of his practice. The White House not only misread the political implications of nominating a surgeon general who performed abortions, it failed to make sure legislators received accurate information about Foster's record. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) said she was told by administration officials that Foster had performed only one abortion. Meanwhile, some at the White House, including Clinton, knew Foster had performed more.

To the White House's chagrin, some of the officials charged with conducting background checks of others -- like Hubbell -- have been found to have troubled backgrounds. White House officials removed ethics matters from the responsibility of William Kennedy III, an associate White House counsel, after the disclosure that he had failed to pay Social Security taxes on his nanny -- a problem similar to that of Clinton's first failed choice for attorney general, Zoe E. Baird. Kennedy resigned in November.

Hubbell, the former associate attorney general who vetted Cisneros as an adviser to the transition team, resigned. He pleaded guilty to fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Staff writer Sharon LaFraniere contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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