From The Washington Post Magazine
Henry and Linda
A Painful Story of Public Service and Private Anguish
By Tamara Jones
"I have a potential to destroy you anytime I want, but I'm not going to, but -- I never have so why would I do it now, Henry?"
"Because the destructive potential grows. When I'm a private citizen, nobody cares. If I'm a Cabinet officer, you've got something . . ."
"Henry, I love you, I don't honestly think -- "
"I'm not saying you would. I'm just saying, I'm just saying you do have the power."
-- from the tapes of Linda Medlar, December 2, 1992
The affair began during a moonlit carriage ride through Central Park. It was March 1987, and Henry Cisneros, just shy of his 40th birthday, had every reason to believe that life was going his way. He was the charismatic mayor of San Antonio, a shooting star in the Democratic Party, a son of both the barrio and the Ivy League. He was an ambitious academic who had swiftly mastered the high-wire act in the circus of public life; humble enough to seek political advice from his housewife mother, yet eloquent enough to command $25,000 fees on the lecture circuit. He appreciated Chopin as well as mariachi bands, and was known to tool around town in a battered orange VW bug that lacked air conditioning or a radio but boasted a car phone 20 years ahead of the fad. The media disregarded his doctorate, calling him Henry, and showcased both his intelligence and his smoldering good looks. When he was in public, people -- especially women -- sought to touch him, reaching out to brush his sleeve or grasp his hand as if he were some holy man. "King Henry," sniped the right-wing critics. But Cisneros was more than a mesmerizing image. As mayor, he was credited with unifying and revitalizing San Antonio, and his ideas were commanding a national forum. Walter Mondale put his name on the short-list as a running mate, and at the party's 1984 convention, Cisneros electrified delegates as a platform speaker, demanding "fairness in our lives, justice in our system." There was talk, serious talk, of Henry Cisneros someday becoming the country's first Hispanic president.
Cisneros remained philosophical. He loved to cite a windy passage from the lips of his slain idol, Robert F. Kennedy, a quote that would prove tragically prophetic: "Our future may lie beyond our vision, but is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that it is neither fate nor chance nor the irreversible tides of history that determine our destiny as individuals or as a people. Rather, it is reason and it is principle, and it is the work of our own hands."
Snow fell as the horse clip-clopped through Central Park that March evening, as if winter were heaving one last sigh. Perched on the carriage seat next to Henry Cisneros was Linda Jones Medlar, then 38, an attractive blond fund-raiser who had joined his team just three months earlier. She was in charge of exploring Cisneros's political future -- maybe a run for governor or the U.S. Senate -- and the two were in town to wine and dine potential donors. Linda had a husband and a young daughter back home in San Antonio. Henry himself had been married for almost 18 years to his high school sweetheart, Mary Alice, who was then pregnant with their third child.
Adultery is often messy, and this affair was no exception. It was exhilarating and then devastating, tender and then brutal. There came private anguish and public humiliation, and when the cataclysm finally passed, Henry Cisneros stood in the debris of his charmed life and, ever the visionary urban planner, began to rebuild. What he said to reporters in his front yard after publicly confessing his love for Linda Medlar applied equally in the end: "I am not made of plastic and wiring," he had pleaded, "but blood and flesh and feeling. In the course of a lifetime, these things happen. I can't be sorry for life."
Cisneros retreated to the private sector and made a handsome living; Mary Alice filed for divorce, then reconsidered. Both turned attention to their infant son, who suffered from a rare heart defect. But Cisneros grew predictably restless outside the circus tent, and ventured back inside. He campaigned hard for Bill Clinton in the Arkansas governor's first presidential bid, and was rewarded with a Cabinet position: secretary of housing and urban development. With a PhD in public administration, Cisneros appeared to be a perfect fit for the job. Although he worried about the character issue beforehand, the Medlar affair never even came up during his Senate confirmation hearing. All that was officially behind him now. Yes, he had made mistakes. Yes, he regretted them. The people who mattered most to him knew this. But it was over. Nothing to make a federal case out of.
Or was it?
Nearly a decade after it ended, his romance with Linda Medlar has now landed Henry Cisneros in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where the United States of America is accusing him of conspiracy, lying, concealment and obstruction of justice, 18 counts in all, worth up to 90 years in prison if he is convicted. There are no charges of corruption or any other offenses arising from his public duties; the allegations all stem from the way he handled the Medlar affair. Cisneros has pleaded not guilty, and trial is scheduled for November. The charges were brought by an independent counsel who so far has spent more than $4 million and 21/2 years pursuing his quarry, and who considers the case still open.
The 66-page indictment, handed down on December 11, 1997, boils down to this: During his FBI background check before becoming HUD secretary, Cisneros volunteered that he had been financially supporting Medlar since their break-up. Which was not illegal. He allegedly understated by some $160,000 the amount of those payments, and urged two subordinates to lie for him. Which was.
But absent any other wrongdoing, at what point did the deeply personal troubles of Henry Cisneros become, as the indictment puts it, a potential threat to, among other things, "the best interests of national security"? Did the turmoil in Cisneros's private life ever make the Cabinet officer vulnerable to blackmail or coercion?
Like the scandal now enveloping President Clinton, the case against Henry Cisneros is a frankly voyeuristic cliche of sex, lies and audio tape -- a spelunking expedition into the anguished soul of a politician. Medlar triggered the investigation of her ex-lover in 1994, a year after he took office, when she sued him for breach of contract and sold what she described as secretly recorded telephone conversations with Cisneros to tabloid television.
The tapes of those conversations formed the backbone of the investigation of Cisneros. The authenticity of tapes seized has not yet been established in court, and they may never be formally accepted as evidence. The FBI has confirmed that they have been closely examined by its forensics experts in Quantico. Erasures and editing have been found on at least some of the tapes, and Medlar has admitted trying to pass off partially erased duplicates as originals to investigators -- a lie that already has cost her immunity from prosecution. No one so far has denied that the male voice on the tapes belongs to Cisneros, and he in fact has publicly apologized for some "foolish" statements made about the FBI on the tapes.
The conversations quoted in this article are from transcripts prepared in 1994 by Medlar's sister-in-law and by a secretary to Medlar's attorney at the time. None of the attorneys, investigators or defendants involved in the prosecutions of Cisneros and Medlar would comment about the tapes or any other aspect of the case. The account that follows is based on the 1994 transcripts, court records -- including deposition testimony by Cisneros and Medlar -- as well as on interviews with friends, associates and others.
"There's one person in everybody's life that you never get over."
-- Henry Cisneros, from the tapes of Linda Medlar, January 15, 1993
To reach the old neighborhood, leave behind the part of San Antonio that tourists love and natives cherish -- the twinkling promenade of restaurants and shops along the meandering river, the cool empty silence of the Alamo, the imposing bank towers and the genteel old saloon where Teddy Roosevelt once mustered his Rough Riders. Go west across the railroad tracks, past the new county jail, until the barrio greets you with Spanish billboards and families walking to Mass.
Along Monterey Street, the 80-year-old Cisneros home clings defiantly to the neighborhood's fading middle-class dream. The yard is trim and green, the front porch swept spotless. Lace curtains hang behind barred windows. Elvira Cisneros answers the door, polite but wary, wearing a sweater with heart-shaped buttons. George Cisneros, a retired civil servant and colonel in the Army Reserve, sits in the sun room in his wheelchair. "He's been in a stroke for 21 years," Elvira murmurs.
Henry was the eldest of five children Elvira and George Cisneros raised on Monterey Street, a bright boy who loved building make-believe cities in the dirt. He read the classics and played French horn. He spent hours hanging out at his Uncle Ruben Munguia's print shop a few blocks away, where local pols gathered at day's end for bull sessions and a shot of whiskey.
Duty, honor and discipline were considered paramount in the Cisneroses' traditional Mexican family. Love, Elvira explains now, is something conveyed "by showing respect, by consideration, by sharing. You know, love is not shown by expressing yourself with hugging and kissing and all that, by going around being mushy."
"Henry, the only time I ever get angry is when I think that my security is being threatened, and that is the only thing I have."
"Okay, I'm going to be square with you, okay, and I don't even know if I'm being taped or not -- am I?"
-- from the tapes of Linda Medlar, February 6, 1993
Linda Jones Medlar came from the hardscrabble Texas Panhandle, where they joke in the icy winds of winter that barbed wire is the only thing between the Arctic Circle and a town like Lubbock. Linda was the baby among four children. Her mother worked in a bakery; her father was a poultry supplier. Linda was the first in her family to graduate from high school.
After dropping out of college and marrying in 1974, she moved to San Antonio, worked as a secretary, then stayed home with her young daughter, Kristan. In 1980, she left her wealthy jeweler husband for another man, to whom she was married "for a few days" before getting an annulment and remarrying Stan Medlar. She went back to work in 1984, raising funds for Lamar Smith's congressional campaign. It was the launch of a glamorous new career that eventually caught the attention of San Antonio's driven mayor.
Cisneros's own marriage was rocky by then; aides remember Mary Alice resenting the 16-hour workdays devouring her husband. At political events, she would appear dutiful but unhappy. While pursuing his PhD at George Washington and working for the National League of Cities, Henry had missed the birth of their first daughter, Teresa. He was on a junket when Mary Alice went into premature labor during a snowstorm.
Twenty years ago, before he became mayor, Cisneros was featured on the cover of a now-defunct San Antonio magazine. Writer Rick Casey asked the energetic city councilman how his workaholic pace affected his young family. Mary Alice interjected with the word "horrendous," but her husband replied in an oddly detached manner, referring to his marriage as more pact than partnership.
"I think Mary Alice understands . . . the sense of mission I have," he was quoted as saying. "And I'm grateful for the free rein she has given me to do what I must so long as I remain moral, ethical, faithful and honest about the mission."
Rumors of womanizing had buzzed around Cisneros even before his four-term, eight-year stint as mayor. Still, the hyper-competitive and often sensationalistic San Antonio press kept mum. Cisneros knew how to handle reporters, flattering them by asking their advice, or taking them into the back rooms of Mexican restaurants for confidential discussions of his troubled personal life. In her taped conversations with Henry, Linda Medlar chides her on-and-off lover over other purported affairs, including two with journalists.
Other infidelities are also referred to in the indictment against Cisneros, which cryptically asserts that he concealed from the FBI and the Senate "the true facts and circumstances concerning Cisneros's payments to Medlar and another woman." It also charges him with falsely stating "that he had only had one extramarital relationship, other than that with Medlar, during his marriage to his wife."
In the deposition he gave in Medlar's civil suit against him, Cisneros repeatedly refused to answer questions about any other liaisons.
In San Antonio, the romance between the mayor and Linda Medlar had been the secret everyone seemed to know. The rap on Henry Cisneros was that he couldn't keep it zipped -- and that went for his mouth as well as his trousers. He told journalists, friends and political advisers about the affair. In baring his off-the-record soul to several reporters, Cisneros confided that his baby son John Paul's frail health made the decisions he faced about his marriage even more agonizing, and said he just needed time to work things out. Mary Alice had become deeply religious, and Henry privately complained about coming home to fundamentalist prayer meetings in the house.
In September 1988, Cisneros announced his intention to step down as mayor when his term ended the following spring. He wouldn't be running for governor or senator or any other public office, either. He cited John Paul's health as a reason, returning to the same explanation again and again over the years when faced with difficult questions about the choices he had made. The baby became a symbol of his father's devotion and dilemma.
Despite the mayor's signaled exit from public life, the rumors persisted. Cisneros had disbanded his gubernatorial exploratory team, and Medlar, having launched her own consulting business, was no longer on his political payroll. Reporters could turn up no evidence of malfeasance, no city cars ferrying the mayor to secret trysts, no public funds being embezzled for gifts. Nevertheless, the dam was about to burst.
"It started threatening the credibility of the media itself," explains Rick Casey, now a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. "It wasn't that we were trying to find justification for printing the story, but to the public, it looked like we were actively covering it up." The turning point, he believes, was when a local TV reporter asked Elvira Cisneros on-camera about rumors that Henry was unfaithful.
"She said, 'He tells me he isn't,' " Casey remembers, "and then the reporter asked, 'Do you believe him?' and there was this long pause, then Elvira said, 'No,' and began to cry."
Dawn hadn't even broken when a reporter knocked on the Cisneros door on October 14, 1988, and Mary Alice answered with John Paul in her arms. The reporter brandished the morning paper. Bannered across the top of the front page of the Express-News was the headline: "Cisneros Confesses Deep Love for Medlar." Drawing from old notes of back room confidences, popular columnist Paul Thompson had outed the mayor. Mary Alice closed her eyes. "I have to take care of my children now," she said before retreating inside.
Soon news crews were camped on the front lawn and family friends were appearing with covered casseroles, as if for a wake. Henry brought Mary Alice to the door for a photo opportunity at lunchtime, to prove that "she's intact." He asked for privacy to deal with his personal problems, then left to catch a plane. He had promised to attend a fund-raiser for Denver's mayor.
Mary Alice wasn't the only woman shattered by the headline that fateful morning. Linda Medlar says she immediately lost two big fund-raising jobs and was pilloried, she remembers, as "the most hated woman in Texas." She received anonymous death threats. Henry called to apologize the first day, then became unreachable, she says. Cisneros later testified that Medlar turned up unannounced at his house a week or so later, "after she had been drinking considerably." His deposition does not elaborate, except to note that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward. Only last month did her lawyers reveal that she had attempted suicide with an overdose of pills and booze.
Her life would never be the same.
Nor would his.
"Well, look, maybe when you're 60, John Paul's grown and the politics are over, maybe we can grow old together, how 'bout that?"
"When did I see you last?"
"A long time ago."
-- from the tapes of Linda Medlar, December 1993
Two months after the affair was publicized, Henry Cisneros rented a bachelor apartment. Only his closest aides, he later acknowledged, knew to dial Linda's number, not his own, to reach him. Stan Medlar filed for divorce, and according to Linda's version of events, Henry urged her to walk away from the marriage empty-handed to avoid an ugly court battle that could damage his own golden name and political future. Linda claims she left behind assets worth well over $1 million, believing that Henry would marry her, that Henry would always take care of her and her daughter. Her fund-raising business was withering on the vine.
The lovers fought, made up and talked about joining the Peace Corps when their children were grown. Linda's tapes would later capture Henry wistfully remembering this interlude, feeling a connection he had never experienced before, coming home on chilly fall nights to find Linda in the kitchen, sitting on the counter top in jeans and a sweat shirt. They would talk about politics and eat soup sprinkled with Fritos. According to Linda, Henry proposed, and they planned to marry in the fall of 1989, after his investment company got off the ground.
But Cisneros viewed the future through a more complicated lens. "There was the backdrop of family responsibilities and, particularly, the health of my son," he testified. "She used to call it my Catholic guilt."
A Catholic counselor Cisneros turned to for help "told me that what was at stake here was a matter of, as he described it, salvation." That made Linda furious, he added.
By mid-1989, Cisneros testified, he was harboring doubts about a long-term relationship with Linda. They stumbled along until November, when Cisneros went to Houston for gallbladder surgery.
"He asked me not to go because the press would be there," Medlar recalled in her deposition. An aide would bring him home after he recuperated, "home meaning my house.
"The next thing I knew in the press or in the papers, Mary Alice was there and he was going home with her. He never came back to my house. Left his clothes there and everything like that."
Falling into another depression, Linda refused to answer the phone.
"He brought Christmas presents over and kept calling, talking to my mother, talking to another friend, wanted to talk to me, just talk it out, just talk it out. He knew he was wrong. He wanted to just talk it out."
After the holidays, Linda finally agreed to see him, "and that's when we talked about everything," she recounted. "It was about the agreement."
The agreement, as far as Medlar is concerned, was basically this: By publicly exposing her as the "other woman," Cisneros had destroyed her career and her marriage. She couldn't find work, and had waived child support or any property settlement from her ex-husband. Now it was up to Cisneros to make her financially whole again. She had a 12-year-old daughter to raise. They agreed that $4,000 a month would suffice, "and that would be there forever," according to Medlar, who added, "Forever was his term."
A month or so after they reached this purported understanding, Medlar went to Radio Shack, bought a $49.95 tape recorder and set it next to her phone.
The cassettes she stored in a grocery sack would reveal the intimate drama of two people who loved and betrayed each other, of a public figure privately agonizing over how to serve his family, his mistress, his country, himself.
Q: "Why didn't you tell her to take a hike?"
A: "I'm not sure you can do that with Linda."
-- from the deposition of Henry Cisneros, October 17, 1994
And so he kept paying. They still saw each other occasionally, but the relationship, Cisneros contends, had ceased being romantic. Political cronies and at least one major donor tried to get Medlar off Cisneros's back, offering her various jobs, which she always turned down, and $11,000 in "loans," which she accepted. Cisneros himself gave her $8,000 so she could move back home to Lubbock. Elvira Cisneros scolded her son for supporting his former mistress.
"He was warned many times that this woman was out to hurt him, but he would say, 'Mom, don't worry. I can handle it.' It was just a feeling. I wasn't the only one," Elvira says now. She told him he didn't owe Linda a thing, but Henry would insist that she needed his help, that she couldn't find work. "Then buy her a mop and pail," his mother suggested.
When years of words are reduced to paper, devoid of nuance or emotion, a pattern can be seen. In the transcripts of Medlar's tapes, Cisneros never says no. She never says thank you. Invariably their discussions about money end with Linda asking if Henry still loves her and Henry assuring her that yes, he does.
After Medlar sued him, Cisneros sought to explain matters in a public statement: "I felt it was appropriate to voluntarily assist Ms. Medlar financially at that time. There was no contract or obligation of any kind, but out of compassion I voluntarily assisted her. The relationship had ended, but as my financial circumstances allowed, I tried to be helpful. This was a personal matter out of personal funds about which I consulted with my wife."
For more than three years, Henry Cisneros would continue to support Linda Medlar, and his private life, tangled and frayed, remained private. He was making good money with his public appearances and investment firm, and Mary Alice had even developed her own taste for politics, winning a seat on San Antonio's school board. But Cisneros was growing restless outside the circus tent, and after campaigning hard for Bill Clinton in his first presidential bid, he was eager to reenter public life. Lloyd Bentsen would be giving up his Senate seat to join the new president's Cabinet, and Cisneros met with Texas Gov. Ann Richards about possibly replacing him. On December 2, 1992, he called Linda to fill her in. She pushed the record button again.
Henry reported that he and Richards had "covered everything there is about my life that could ever possibly be known."
"Oh," said Linda, "I bet there was some things left out."
The Richards meeting had left Cisneros pessimistic. They had discussed his affair and continued support of Linda in detail.
"There are several aspects of this that worry her deeply," he told Linda now. "She's concerned about the money and convinced that's a killer . . ."
The Senate wasn't Cisneros's only option, though. As a senior adviser on Clinton's transition team, his name was being bandied about for a possible Cabinet nomination. Transportation, maybe, or possibly Housing and Urban Development, was the scuttlebutt. Mary Alice and the kids weren't thrilled with the idea of leaving Texas, and John Paul, by then a 5-year-old, was still fragile. In addition to his heart defect, the boy had been born without a spleen, which left him vulnerable to infection. His teenage sisters argued with their father over the risk Washington's colder climate might pose. Mary Alice had her new job on the school board, plus church, family and friends in San Antonio. To Henry Cisneros, the planner at heart, the uncertainty in both his career and his home life began to gnaw at him.
"It's not my fault," he protested in that December 2 conversation with Linda. They hadn't seen each other in two years, but she could still make him go from zero to guilty in nothing flat. "I have been angry at people and I've been feeling cheated all these years," Henry continued, "and I just need to recognize that whatever problem there is here is what I created for myself."
Still, Clinton's key advisers summoned Cisneros, and he took the first step toward becoming a Cabinet officer: filling out Standard Form 86, the FBI questionnaire for sensitive positions. The document is used as the basis for FBI background checks on government appointees. "Is there anything in your personal life that could be used by someone to coerce or blackmail you?" the form asked Cisneros. "Is there anything in your life that could cause an embarrassment to you or to the President if publicly known? If so, please provide full details."
Meanwhile, Clinton's people began doing their own risk-management assessments of the Medlar affair. Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general-designate, was the first to meet with Cisneros. Both sides thought the meeting went well. Cisneros found the Arkansan genial and understanding; Hubbell later described Cisneros as candid. The press had never discovered Cisneros's financial relationship with Medlar, and the support money was not public knowledge. Now Cisneros told Hubbell about helping out Medlar when "special needs" arose. He described it as an act of compassion, and answered questions about how the payments were made.
Linda was flabbergasted when Henry told her about his disclosures to Hubbell. She didn't see why he had to say anything at all.
"Henry, you are so dumb. I could just brain you for that," she declared.
"Well, what do you expect me to do?" he objected. "You want me to tell lies?"
"I don't understand why this would cause a problem," Linda insisted.
"Because it looks like a payoff."
"If you had never said anything about it . . ."
"I can't afford to do that . . ."
"They only know about parts of it, right?"
The prospect of Henry moving to Washington made Linda nervous about her financial situation, and frankly bitter about her personal one. Henry had always told her that Washington wasn't an option as long as he was with Mary Alice. Medlar had assumed she would be the one by his side now. This was supposed to be a chapter in their life together. Instead, she was a depressed, single mother in Lubbock, still unable or unwilling to get back on her feet again. She would spend weeks never leaving her house, according to court papers, which also noted a history of emotional problems dating back to when she was 19. Now the steady flow of Henry's cash into Linda's bank account was in jeopardy. Cisneros would be forced to divest under ethics laws, barred from collecting fat honorariums for public speaking, and limited to a government salary of $148,000, which would have to cover college tuition for two daughters and medical bills for open-heart surgery for John Paul.
Cisneros was pondering a possible solution. He could expect a stream of cash from the annuities and holdings being divested -- he was even selling his car, his small plane and some furniture -- and maybe there would be a way to give Linda a lump sum to see her through the year, a period he later testified that he viewed as a "fair and ample transition" period for her to become self-supporting. Linda also wanted to buy a house in Lubbock. She needed $16,000 for the down payment, would Henry send her the money?
The transcript of the December 12, 1992, conversation between the two is riddled with suspicious gaps, starting with Cisneros worrying aloud about his impending meeting with the president-elect:
"I think Clinton will have problems with the [skip] It's like hush money."
"Is that what they said?"
"No, but I mean, that's what it sounds like [skip] . . . I think he's going to tell Clinton and Clinton's going, 'Well how come [skip].' "
"You know, I's sorry, hon, but I just think you offered too much."
"Well [skip] It's a natural. I mean these are smart people. There is no way you can duck 'em, I mean [skip] . . . "
Cisneros went to Little Rock for his face-to-face with Clinton on December 13. What was discussed has not been divulged, but the very next day, Cisneros filed a supplement to the FBI disclosure form, providing a copy to Clinton's representatives.
On December 17, Clinton nominated Cisneros for HUD secretary. A week later, Henry called his old lover on Christmas Eve. Linda, recovering from a hysterectomy, came sleepily on the line. They talked about politics for a while, then Linda told Henry that all he cared about was this damn Cabinet, and she was sick of it. Across the frozen surface they skated, their conversation safe one minute, perilous the next.
"Damn it, I haven't changed, Linda."
"Henry, I don't suspect I'll even talk to you."
"If you want to, if you want to, I do."
"Yeah, your whole life is about to change, so why would you?"
"You are still the absolute dearest thing in my life."
"Except for your public office, right."
"No ma'am, no ma'am. I'm not going to quarrel with you about that . . . Okay, I mean, in your mind, everything I do is cynical and self-calculating and self -- you know, self-serving, and honest to goodness, this is a very dumb move for me if it was about ambition . . . I mean, I wish you could see how bad things are across the country. I mean, it's like, I don't know how to tell you, you make fun of me about everything that I say that comes from the heart -- but this is kind of like a duty I owe. I mean, it's like amends."
They argued some more, until Linda said that she was hurting in so many ways, that Henry didn't care, and he said okay, don't cry, don't cry, and she said why not, it's Christmas and she had cried every Christmas for several years now, so why doesn't he just go home and be with his family, okay?
A few days later, Cisneros called back. The FBI was digging into its background check, he cautioned, and agents would be contacting her, but she shouldn't panic.
"What if they find out about the money?" asked Linda.
Henry didn't think there would be a problem.
"Oh boy, it's going to be dicey . . . The FBI is crawling all over everything. The business about whether or not money was paid. I don't even know whether the FBI can look at your bank records without you even knowing that they are. I just don't know. Okay, this is real hard. This is real hard. I honestly wish I wasn't doing this for a lot of reasons . . . My stomach is upset. I feel like I have a knot and I feel like quitting about every few hours."
-- Henry Cisneros, from the tapes of Linda Medlar, January 4, 1993
In that same conversation, Linda mentioned that the FBI had called, but her mother had said Linda, still recuperating from her recent surgery, was too ill to talk. The FBI agreed to try again later.
In the transcripts, Cisneros recounts how agents contacted some 65 people and talked to most of them about the Medlar affair before compiling a 40-page background report on him.
Medlar was not among the people they interviewed.
The Medlar affair never came up during Cisneros's Senate confirmation hearing on January 12, 1993. Even the Republicans went easy on him, with ranking minority member Sen. Alfonse D'Amato declaring, "This is someone totally and completely committed to making a difference."
Linda watched it all on TV, and when Henry called three days later, she told him that Mary Alice looked miserable and that he didn't look so hot himself, that his face was too shiny and his hair too short and that he had lost too much weight.
She wondered if he would stay in touch after he went to Washington, and he said he'd like to. She asked why, and suddenly, he sounded sad.
"I miss you a lot," he said. "I have lost so much, you know that I had to do this, to save something."
The transcript notes that he was crying. They talked about water under the bridge, about how they had hurt each other, and she let him know she resented that he was going to Washington with Mary Alice, not her. He changed the subject.
"I'm going to go work in these housing projects where the gangs control the elevators," he vowed. "This is where the problems are. This is where we're either going to save a generation or lose it."
Linda warned him that he would just end up disappointed in President Clinton, and Henry replied that he'd known so much disappointment these last few years.
"There can't be any bigger disappointment," he said. "My son is sick, you and I aren't together and I'm married to this woman and, Jesus. [Expletive], man." He laughed.
Finally, Linda had to ask, just say it.
"Do you see any way back for you?"
"I see it almost every day," he admitted. "I keep thinking of how wonderful it would be and whether people would understand if after all is said and done, I said, 'Well, this is the woman I've always loved and I want to be with her and I want to serve and so forth, but this is it, these are my terms.' " This notion made him laugh again.
She wanted to know about the money again, and why he didn't send flowers or a note after her surgery, and he said it's because every time he did something like that, "you end up threatening me with it. You do."
If she wanted to hurt him, she responded, she would have cooperated with the FBI. "I mean, honey, I'm as smart as they come. I know exactly what would do you in. I've always known that."
Then he told Linda about the big blowout he'd just had with his family over taking the job and moving, how his older daughter tried to box him into corners like a prosecutor, until finally he shouted at her and made her cry, that he stalked out, then flew to Washington without them, because that's how important this was to him.
"I mean, God, it's about helping people, and getting back into things I care about."
The night before his confirmation hearing, Cisneros went on, the Clinton ethics people had called him to say they had read through most of the FBI background report on him and weren't worried, that "there is nothing in there that hasn't been known or I haven't been forthright about or hasn't been public or that can't be faded.
"And the FBI loves things that have to do with sex and intimacy and so forth. They're real bad at tracking down financial things because they're not accountants and so forth, but they just, they're just righteous guys who love to get into this stuff. I mean they're just gossipers and scandalizers like everybody else you know . . . They're very heavily Mormon and so they have particular stringency on these points, their own values get in."
Lying to the FBI is a crime. Mocking the FBI is another matter entirely.
"Don't worry, don't worry. It's, uh, I mean, number one, nothing's going to happen to you. Number two, if it happens to me, it's my own doing and I won't let you get hurt, so okay?"
-- Henry Cisneros, from the tapes of Linda Medlar, December 30, 1992
Mary Alice and the kids came to Washington with Henry, after all. With cash from his various divestitures on tap, the new secretary of HUD allegedly gave his former mistress some $72,000 over the next 10 months, in sporadic installments as large as $15,000.
"I was helping of my own free will and goodwill," Cisneros said of the payments in his 1994 deposition. "This was not a callous individual who simply said, 'Look, I'm going. You're on your own.' "
But in October 1993, the money stopped coming -- abruptly and without explanation, Medlar would later complain. Cisneros wouldn't take her calls or respond to faxes she sent him at HUD, she said. She borrowed thousands of dollars from her mother and her sister, but still couldn't keep up her mortgage payments. In July 1994, Medlar sued Cisneros for breach of contract and fraud. Two months later, she sold her story to "Inside Edition" for $15,000, and said on-air that Henry had lied to the FBI about how much he had paid her. She offered deposit slips and snippets from her secret tapes as proof. The lawsuit ended up settling out of court several months later for $49,000.
The "Inside Edition" segment came to the attention of Attorney General Janet Reno. On March 13, 1995, she requested an independent counsel "to investigate whether Henry G. Cisneros, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, committed a violation of federal criminal law when he made false statements to the FBI during his background investigation, and to determine whether prosecution is warranted."
The job went to lawyer David M. Barrett, a Republican lobbyist and former GOP fund-raiser. From a suite of offices on K Street NW, Barrett has directed a staff of around 30 in the investigation of Henry Cisneros. The team includes at least five attorneys and half a dozen special agents on full-time loan from the FBI.
In November 1995, Barrett sent Linda Medlar a letter formally notifying her that she was a "target" of the investigation, and opening the door for immunity in exchange for full cooperation. She quickly agreed.
But things began disintegrating the minute Barrett's team arrived for their first meeting with Medlar in the offices of her attorney, Floyd Holder. Medlar stood them up. On the phone, she told Holder she was just too depressed and tired, that he should tell the investigators to come back another time.
An FBI agent cajoled Medlar into meeting at the local Denny's; she told her attorney not to come. The feds didn't mind at all, and later had Medlar sign waiver-of-counsel letters, which meant no one representing her legal interests needed to be present at any of her meetings with them.
In a court hearing in Lubbock last month, one of the FBI agents working for Barrett revealed that a call tracer was put on Medlar's phone shortly after she was given immunity, to see if there were people "reaching out" to her, and to test her honesty. In April 1995, a soft-spoken blond FBI agent named Karen Spangberg went to Lubbock to start debriefing Medlar. She set a small trap.
When was the last time Linda had been in contact with Shirl Thomas, and how long had they spoken? the agent asked. Shirl had worked for Henry back in San Antonio, and had followed him to HUD; Linda considered her a friend. She said it had been six months or more since they'd been in touch, and that they had only spoken for a few minutes. The FBI had traced a 38-minute phone call from Linda's house to Shirl's number barely two weeks earlier. Spangberg made note of the lie, but didn't confront Linda.
Over that summer, the FBI disclosed, Medlar would flunk even more little truth tests in her numerous interviews with agents. The worst of her alleged lies, they said, was giving investigators from the Internal Revenue Service edited copies of her taped conversations with Cisneros, while representing them as originals. FBI lab experts quickly determined the truth.
In September 1996, the day before she was scheduled to appear before a grand jury in Washington, Medlar was summoned to a meeting at the independent counsel's office. FBI agent T.J. Roberts sat her down. Her Washington attorney and deputies from Barrett's team were also present.
The purpose of the meeting, Roberts would later testify, "was to say that we did not believe much of the information she had furnished, and that this was a very serious matter." The meeting lasted for several hours. The tapes were the biggest concern. Where were the originals?
Medlar grew agitated. She didn't have them. "You can search my house if you like," she huffed. Fine, the FBI said, handing her a consent form to sign, which she did over her attorney's objections. They took a lunch break. Medlar by then had been forced to sell her own house and was living with her elderly mother. She called to warn her about the FBI search. Her mother said there were reporters outside. Medlar hung up in a rage, certain the FBI had tipped off the press. She heatedly revoked permission for the search. "I want you guys out of there!" she cried.
The FBI showed her the search warrant it had had in hand all along. Agents left her mother's house that day with five boxes.
Medlar had an even bigger surprise coming. When the grand jury handed down its indictment against Cisneros, she was named as a co-defendant. Without formally notifying her, the independent counsel had revoked her immunity; she had broken the contract by lying. It got worse. In a separate 28-count indictment, she was charged along with her sister and brother-in-law, Patsy and Allen Wooten, with "bank fraud" for putting the mortgage for Medlar's Lubbock house in the Wootens' names, and with "money laundering" for making an $8,462 profit on the house when it was sold in 1995. Medlar was also charged with making false statements and obstruction of justice during her debriefings by the FBI.
The independent counsel set up a satellite office in Lubbock.
On November 15, 1996, Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees governmental affairs, sent a four-page letter to David Barrett full of questions about the Cisneros investigation. Legislation was going to be introduced to reform the independent counsel law, the Michigan legislator wrote, and among the things he wanted to know was this:
"The intent of the independent counsel law is to ensure that high government officials are subject to criminal investigation and prosecution no less and no more than ordinary citizens. What steps have you taken to ensure that your office complies with this principle?"
Barrett politely declined to answer.
Cisneros hired powerhouse attorney Brendan Sullivan, defender of Oliver North and Marlene Cooke, to represent him.
When Cisneros, his ex-lover, and his former aides Sylvia Arce-Garcia and John Rosales stand trial this fall, the prosecution will have to prove, in essence, that any lies Cisneros may have told the FBI made a difference, that he would not have become HUD secretary if he had told the whole truth. Cisneros tried to halt the investigation at the outset by providing letters from the two ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, who stated that he would have been confirmed regardless. President Clinton also weighed in immediately after Reno requested the independent counsel, when a White House spokesman told The Washington Post in an interview that "the excellent work that the secretary of housing and urban development has been doing, and will do, outweighs the mistakes that Secretary Cisneros has made. Secretary Cisneros regrets those mistakes, and so does the president."
In Lubbock, Texas, last month, on the morning they were to stand trial, Patsy and Allen Wooten took a plea bargain that put them on probation for five years and forced them to agree to testify against Medlar if necessary when she and Cisneros go on trial in Washington this November. Medlar, after losing a bid to avoid trial on the grounds that she was mentally ill, tearfully accepted a deal that day, too, with a recommended sentence of 31/2 years on the bank fraud and money-laundering indictment. She made no promise to cooperate further and still faces prosecution for allegedly lying to the FBI. With the guilty pleas in Lubbock, the government had scored its first courtroom victory in the exhaustive case against Cisneros. There was just one unfortunate drawback:
They were sending their own star witness to prison.
"I don't think this is a case involving rocket science. It's false statements."
-- U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, in a discussion with attorneys during the arraignment of Henry Cisneros, January 8, 1998
Henry Cisneros stepped down as HUD secretary after one term, and moved to Los Angeles, where he is president of a Spanish-language television network. His mother says he misses the barrio. Both of his daughters have inherited their father's passion for public service. Teresa passed the bar exam and plans to work as an advocate for child services after getting married this spring. Mercedes is teaching in an inner-city school and wants to be a social worker. John Paul's heart was repaired, but remains fragile. The 10-year-old likes going for walks on the beach and playing chess with his father, a game where the king can lose his entire army but still survive as long as he doesn't get cornered.
He returned to Washington not long ago, for his arraignment in federal court. Henry Cisneros, now 50, looked handsome and unruffled sitting at the defense table. He locked eyes with associates and reporters watching him, and winked at John Rosales, the former aide turned co-defendant, who sat next to him looking petrified. The lawyers were conferring at the bench over hearing dates when there was a sudden commotion in the back of the courtroom. Cisneros's smooth, bronze face contorted into a fleeting grimace.
A matronly woman with blond hair gone gray made her way to the defense table. Linda sat down across from Henry. They avoided each other's eyes. She clutched her purse tightly, as if someone might, at any minute, rob her.
Afterward, the fawning press clustered around Cisneros at the top of the courthouse steps. Reporters ordered themselves to move back, give him space.
"I regret the pain this matter has caused my wife, my children, my parents, my family," he read from a prepared statement, "because they are wonderful, good, loving people. I care deeply about our community, and I love my country.
"I came to Washington to try to do good, and I'm proud of the good we were able to do. I believe inherently in the fairness of the American judicial system."
Someone asked him to repeat the statement in Spanish, and he did. A latecomer asked him to say it again in English, and he complied, oblivious to the falling rain, a man caught on rewind.
Tamara Jones is a staff writer for the Magazine.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company