Defense lawyers have exposed serious weaknesses in an independent counsel's case against former housing secretary Henry Cisneros, including an admission from the star witness that she had lied in 11 meetings with investigators.
In five days of court hearings last week, Cisneros's legal team relentlessly attacked the credibility of Linda Jones, the ex-mistress who alleges he paid her more than $250,000 to keep details of their relationship quiet. On Friday, one of her own former lawyers took the stand to testify that she is still not being truthful. "We've established she's lied about a million things," gloated Barry Simon, one of Cisneros's attorneys.
Cisneros is accused of 18 felony charges involving making false statements to the FBI and the presidential transition team about the payments he made to Jones before his confirmation as secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department in 1993. His trial is scheduled for September.
The ongoing hearings in U.S. District Court concern the admissibility of 33 tape recordings that Jones made of telephone conversations with Cisneros. Jones, who agreed to assist the prosecution in hopes of getting an early release from prison in a bank fraud case, has admitted editing several of the tapes and passing them off as originals in a civil court proceeding and to federal investigators examining Cisneros's conduct.
Judge Stanley Sporkin has not yet ruled whether the recordings can be used against Cisneros at his trial in September. Sporkin said, however, that he was "astounded" at the lengths to which Jones went over the years to lie about the tapes' authenticity.
Prosecutors contend the recordings add important context to the case, citing instances in which Cisneros allegedly discussed ways to mislead the background investigators. If they are barred from using the recordings, they will have to rely more heavily on the testimony of Jones and on a complicated trail of financial records.
Events in the case date to 1987, when Cisneros and Jones began an affair while he was mayor of San Antonio. By 1991, they had broken up and Cisneros reconciled with his wife. In late 1992, President-elect Clinton chose Cisneros to be his first HUD secretary.
The charges stem from payments that Cisneros made to Jones between 1989 and 1994. He contends the money was given as a humanitarian gesture. In court last week, she said the money was meant to keep her quiet. During his background investigation in 1993, Cisneros told the FBI that he never paid Jones more than $10,000 a year and that the payments had stopped. Prosecutors said Cisneros paid Jones more than $250,000 before cutting her off in January 1994.
Jones, who at the time went by the name of Medlar, said she recorded Cisneros from 1990 until 1994, without his knowledge, so that she would have a record of his promises to assist her financially. When the money stopped, she said, she took her tapes to Texas lawyers Floyd Holder and Bruce Magness, and filed a civil suit against Cisneros. She said she edited the tapes at the direction of Magness and Holder, who she alleged told her to remove any instances in which it might appear she was threatening Cisneros.
But on Friday, Holder disputed Jones's account on the stand, saying that he believed the tapes to be originals and never told her to edit them. Magness is expected to give his version of events next week.
During a deposition in the civil suit and in an affidavit submitted to a Texas court, Jones said she had not altered the tapes. Meanwhile, she began making the same claim in 11 meetings with the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and prosecutors working on behalf of independent counsel David M. Barrett.
It was not until September 1996, after performing an analysis of the recordings, that Barrett's lawyers confronted her with evidence of alterations, she said. Even then, she continued to assert she had done no tampering.
"It was like that old song: It's my story and I'm sticking with it?" Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., Cisneros's lawyer, asked Jones. "You lied again?"
"Yes sir," Jones replied.
The falling out with Barrett's office led to charges being filed against Jones in another case involving bank fraud in Texas. Jones wound up with a 3 1/2-year term after pleading guilty last year, but prosecutors have agreed to seek a reduced sentence if she cooperates fully in the Cisneros case.
Cisneros has denied any wrongdoing. Now a television executive in Los Angeles, he has not attended the hearings. Two of Cisneros's former aides, John Rosales and Sylvia Arce-Garcia, also have been charged with helping to mislead investigators. They, too, pleaded not guilty.