The ex-mistress of former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros turned on him in federal court yesterday, saying he had deliberately lied about their relationship to FBI agents investigating his suitability for the Cabinet.
Appearing as a government witness, Linda Jones testified at a pretrial hearing on the admissibility of secret tape-recordings she made of telephone conversations with Cisneros, in which he vowed to support her after their affair ended. According to Jones, she also caught Cisneros on tape talking about his plans to mislead FBI background investigators so he could win confirmation in 1993.
The tapes have emerged as a cornerstone in the case against Cisneros, who is accused of making false statements to the FBI and presidential transition team about the extent and duration of $250,000 in payments he made to Jones. Cisneros, who was indicted in December 1997 on 18 felony charges, has denied any criminal wrongdoing. He did not attend the hearing yesterday.
Independent counsel David M. Barrett hopes to introduce the 33 recordings as evidence at Cisneros's trial in September, viewing them as a way to corroborate Jones's account. Defense lawyers argue that the tapes cannot be used at trial because they are flawed and altered copies, not originals. Jones admitted in court that she had edited the tapes and destroyed the originals, saying she deleted snippets in which she threatened to expose Cisneros.
Judge Stanley Sporkin appeared sympathetic to defense concerns about the fairness of using the materials, saying at one point, "Here she's editing the tapes, she's going through and picking out what is good for her."
The hearing in U.S. District Court was a preview for what promises to be a tawdry trial. The tryst between Cisneros and Jones, who then went by the last name Medlar, began in 1987, when Cisneros was the mayor of San Antonio. Cisneros publicly acknowledged the affair in 1988, but later reconciled with his wife and ended the relationship with Jones by 1991.
Jones said that after Cisneros went public, her life began a downward spiral. She testified that she could not continue working as a political consultant because of the notoriety brought on by the revelations and that she became "the most hated woman in Texas." Cisneros stepped in to help, she testified, with financial support for her and her young daughter.
According to Jones, Cisneros paid her an average of $4,000 a month and agreed to keep up the payments until her daughter graduated from college. But he would not put the agreement in writing, she said. That led her to begin tape-recording conversations, a practice she continued from 1990 until 1994.
Jones said she recorded conversations "only when I started feeling so insecure, when everything was so volatile." One such period came in late 1992, when Cisneros began talking about the Cabinet position. Jones said she feared that Cisneros, who worked in the private sector after leaving office in 1989, would no longer have the money to support her.
Cisneros, she said, told her that Clinton's advisers were concerned that his payments to her would look like "hush money." Jones said Cisneros planned to downplay the amounts and urged her to do the same. Later she said she was determined to keep the money coming, and frequently threatened to go to the president, the media or the FBI and say that Cisneros had lied. "When he got to Washington, I could see in my own mind everything blowing up," she said.
The cash flow stopped in January 1994, and Jones went to two lawyers in Texas several months later. According to her testimony yesterday, she told the attorneys that she had tapes as evidence of an agreement. The attorneys advised her to delete any portions in which she threatened Cisneros, explaining such remarks could cause her legal problems. Jones said she edited the tapes, removing her threats and anything else that would be embarrassing to her.
Jones, who turned 50 yesterday, returns to the witness stand today for cross-examination by Cisneros's attorneys. Defense lawyer Barry Simon said in court that he viewed the tapes as "tampered, inauthentic evidence."
Jones's cooperation with Barrett marks the second time she has agreed to assist prosecutors. She cooperated briefly in 1995 but had a falling-out with investigators after initially telling them her tapes were originals. Barrett subsequently charged Jones with conspiracy and bank fraud. She is now serving a 42-month sentence, which she hopes will be reduced in return for her assistance.
CAPTION: HENRY G. CISNEROS