Former housing secretary Henry Cisneros, a onetime Democratic Party star whose promising political career was derailed by scandal, returns to Washington today to stand trial on criminal charges accusing him of lying to the FBI about $250,000 in alleged "hush money" he paid to a former mistress.
More than 400 potential jurors have been summoned to U.S. District Court for a trial that both sides expect to last at least a month. The process of selecting a 12-member panel could be tedious--and revealing. Among other things, potential jurors likely will be quizzed about their views on such issues as extramarital affairs, independent counsels and secret tape recordings, all of which figure in this case involving sex, lies and audiotape.
Cisneros, 52, was indicted in December 1997, a month before President Clinton became entangled in legal warfare with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. The case against Cisneros was pursued by another independent counsel, David M. Barrett, who has kept a much lower profile than Starr during a four-year, $9 million investigation.
The case focuses on what Cisneros told--and didn't tell--the FBI and others who in 1993 were investigating his fitness to become Clinton's first secretary of housing and urban development. In an 18-count indictment, Cisneros is accused of conspiracy, making false statements and obstructing justice to hide details about money he gave to former mistress Linda Jones. Jones is the star witness, and she has tapes of numerous conversations with Cisneros. But Cisneros's lawyers say she can't be trusted, calling her "a woman of 1,000 lies."
The trial will revisit a tumultuous period of Cisneros's life. He and Jones had an affair that began in 1987 when he was mayor of San Antonio and she was a political fund-raiser. Both were married at the time. Cisneros went public with the relationship the following year, leading to a torrent of publicity.
In his four terms as mayor, Cisneros had built a high profile and strong following, in Texas and nationally. He served as president of the National League of Cities and was one of seven finalists in 1984 to be Walter F. Mondale's vice presidential running mate.
Jones, who at the time went by the name of Medlar, divorced her husband and entertained hopes of a new life with Cisneros. But it didn't happen. Although they kept up the relationship for a while, Cisneros ultimately reconciled with his wife and family. He left the mayor's office when his term expired in 1989, retreated from public life and began a career as a management consultant.
In early 1990, after the breakup, Cisneros began making payments to Jones in what he called a humanitarian gesture. Prosecutors call it "hush money" and Cisneros's troubles stem from what he later said about it.
Cisneros is accused of vastly underestimating the amount of those payments and lying about their duration during the background examinations that preceded his Cabinet confirmation. Barrett's prosecutors maintain that the FBI and others had a right to know the full extent of what Cisneros was doing so that they could assess whether he was vulnerable to blackmail or other threats.
Cisneros told investigators he never gave Jones more than $10,000 a year, that the payments had stopped, and that he hadn't had any significant discussions with Jones in nearly two years. In fact, the independent counsel said, Cisneros stayed in contact and kept providing money, too. Total payments reached more than $250,000 by the time they ended in January 1994, the independent counsel maintains.
Defense lawyers Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. and Barry S. Simon contend Cisneros committed no crimes because his affair was well known to Clinton and others. But the independent counsel alleges that Cisneros deceived investigators because he feared that the truth would ruin his chances of confirmation.
The allegations against Cisneros surfaced in 1994. Jones, unhappy after the money stopped coming, filed a civil lawsuit against Cisneros in Texas demanding $256,000. She contended that Cisneros promised to keep paying her until her daughter graduated from college in 1999. She followed up with an appearance on the television show "Inside Edition," during which she accused Cisneros of lying. Unbeknown to Cisneros, Jones had been taping their telephone conversations since 1990 and she provided copies of tapes to the program.
The Justice Department launched an investigation, leading to Barrett's appointment in May 1995.
Now 50, Jones is cooperating with Barrett's office in hopes of getting an early release from a 3 1/2-year prison term. She pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud and other charges in a Texas case that was a spinoff of Barrett's investigation. Her credibility will be one of the keys to the prosecution.
At a pretrial hearing this summer, Jones admitted editing some of her 88 telephone tapes and destroying all of the originals, saying she removed portions in which it appeared she might be threatening Cisneros.
She acknowledged that she lied repeatedly over the years by passing off copies as originals.
At the conclusion of Jones's testimony, an incredulous Judge Stanley Sporkin said, "I guess there are people in this country who don't know how to tell the truth."
Still, over defense objections, the judge agreed to permit Barrett's legal team to use more than two dozen of the tapes at trial.
Sporkin said he believed the tapes were authentic and that jurors could make their own determinations after hearing the conversations and Jones's testimony.
Cisneros, who remained at HUD through Clinton's first term, has denied wrongdoing and said that he did not intend to mislead background investigators.
He is the second member of Clinton's Cabinet to stand trial on charges stemming from an independent counsel's investigation. Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy was acquitted last year of charges that he illegally took gifts from companies he was supposed to regulate.