"THE FIRST task is to be fair. Part of fairness is alacrity, and I intend to do this as quickly as is consistent with completeness."

-- David Barrett, upon his appointment in May 1995

Mr. Barrett is the independent counsel who handled the case of former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros. His investigation of whether Mr. Cisneros lied to the FBI about payments he had made to his former mistress, Linda Jones, took more than four years and cost more than $9 million. Mr. Barrett brought several questionable cases and put Ms. Jones in prison for an alarming period of time. In the end, he obtained from Mr. Cisneros a guilty plea on nothing more than a single misdemeanor charge that will carry a $10,000 fine. The charge to which Mr. Cisneros pleaded guilty, moreover, is based on information that was contained in the attorney general's original call for an independent counsel. After all that time and money, Mr. Barrett managed to tell us what we already knew.

It is hard to see justice in an investigation that put Ms. Jones in jail for 3 1/2 years while letting Mr. Cisneros off with just a fine. Mr. Barrett indicted Ms. Jones on 28 felony counts for obstructing his investigation and using her sister and brother-in-law as fronts in a house purchase to cover up the fact that she was using Mr. Cisneros's money for the purchase. Ms. Jones brought prosecutors' wrath on herself by lying to Mr. Barrett's investigators after reaching an immunity agreement with them. But the scope and subject of the indictment -- plus the fact that Mr. Barrett also indicted the sister and brother-in-law -- seemed excessive. Mr. Barrett didn't shed that sense of excess when when he had to drop charges he had filed against two Cisneros aides he had accused of lying at Mr. Cisneros's behest.

The Cisneros probe is a true example of how a botched investigation can fail to address the questions it was intended to answer. The evidence still seems to indicate that Mr. Cisneros lied repeatedly in order to prevent the Senate from finding out during his confirmation that he was paying hush money to Ms. Jones. This was not a trivial matter, so in addition to deserving criticism for being too aggressive, Mr. Barrett may also be faulted for having failed to prosecute Mr. Cisneros more effectively. One can wonder both whether he should have declined to bring a case against Mr. Cisneros altogether and whether he should have settled for such a gentle plea deal. What is clear is that a reasonable prosecutor would not have taken so long, spent so much and wreaked so much havoc to net so little.