Former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros pleaded guilty yesterday to a single misdemeanor charge of lying to the FBI about money he paid to a former mistress, ending a wide-ranging independent counsel investigation that lasted more than four years and cost more than $9 million.
Cisneros, 52, is the first Cabinet member of the Clinton administration to plead guilty in a case brought by an independent counsel, though the consequences of the plea proved relatively mild: Cisneros agreed to a $10,000 fine and a $25 court assessment, but he will serve no time either in prison or on probation and he will be free to seek elected office.
As part of the plea agreement, Cisneros was required to admit that he had knowingly given false information to FBI investigators. He told U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin that he regretted his "lack of candor" and added, "It is my hope that other people who aspire to and follow in public service will also perhaps learn . . . that truth and candor are important in the process of selecting people for governmental positions."
The resolution marked a less-than-triumphant end to the work of independent counsel David M. Barrett, one of 20 independent counsels appointed to investigate allegations concerning high-level officials since the law creating the position was enacted in 1978. Support for the statute wavered in recent years, largely as a result of the five-year investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that led to President Clinton's impeachment, and over the summer Congress declined to renew the law.
Cisneros is one of several Clinton Cabinet officials to be targeted by independent counsel investigations. Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy was acquitted of corruption charges after a trial last year, and investigations of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman are still ongoing.
The Cisneros plea agreement was negotiated during the past week and approved on the day that Cisneros was to begin standing trial on 18 felony charges in federal court. After months of acrimony between the two sides, it turned out that neither was eager to go forward with a lengthy trial that would have played like a soap opera. But the final agreement had even the judge wondering why such a simple outcome took so long.
"The problem with this case is that it took too long to develop and much too long to bring to judgment day," said Sporkin, adding that the matter "should have been resolved a long time ago, perhaps even years ago."
Cisneros was originally indicted in December 1997 on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and obstructing justice. The allegations stemmed from statements he had made to FBI background investigators in late 1992 and early 1993, while he was under consideration to be President Clinton's first secretary of housing and urban development. Cisneros was accused of lying about the amount of money he had provided to former mistress Linda Jones, a political fund-raiser with whom he had an affair beginning in 1987, when he was mayor of San Antonio.
Over four years, the Barrett investigation looked into related issues such as whether Cisneros had done anything illegal to raise the money he paid Jones and whether his political allies did favors for her to keep her silent. But in the end, the case wound up back at its starting point, with the question of whether or not Cisneros had lied during his background check.
The case presented difficult issues for both sides. Barrett had to convince a jury in the District that the story he would tell about Cisneros's affair and lies constituted a real crime. That was complicated by the fact that Cisneros had long ago acknowledged the affair, had since reconciled with his wife and had told the FBI that he had aided Jones financially, merely underestimating the amount he had given her.
Cisneros, meanwhile, risked an embarrassing public airing of his private life. Barrett had intended to make his case using not only Jones's testimony but also tape recordings she had made of telephone conversations with Cisneros. In July, Barrett had prevailed in a hearing on the tapes' admissibility at trial, despite defense arguments that they were edited copies rather than originals.
In his guilty plea, Cisneros admitted telling an FBI agent that he had paid Jones roughly $2,500 a month after their relationship ended, when in fact the payments were considerably higher. All told, prosecutors said that Cisneros provided Jones with more than $250,000 from 1990 until 1994.
When the judge asked why he had lied, Cisneros answered, "For one thing, I wasn't sure about the numbers personally. I had never calculated them up. But beyond that, I was trying to protect [Jones], who didn't want the information out, and my own wife, who didn't know precisely what the number was. And in the final analysis I've attributed it to the pressure and confused sort of fog of the moment where I gave an incorrect number."
Cisneros, now the president and chief executive officer of Univision, a Spanish-language television network based in Los Angeles, declined further comment as he left the courthouse but issued a statement noting that none of the allegations concerned work he did for HUD.
Barrett likewise left the courthouse without comment but he issued a statement saying that his agreement to the plea was not a capitulation. "This disposition should in no way be viewed as minimizing the serious ethical breach by Mr. Cisneros. Deception by public officials and those seeking public office erodes trust and must be addressed and sanctioned," Barrett's statement said. "However, a just disposition of any prosecution must include an evaluation of the defendant's overall conduct. In this case, the conduct, while egregious, was committed by a person whose life has been otherwise dedicated to public service, and this fact must season the final decision."
Jones, Barrett's star witness, has fared far worse at his hands. Last year, she pleaded guilty to bank fraud and other charges in a spinoff of the original probe, admitting that she had used Cisneros's money for a down payment on a house. Jones received a 3 1/2-year sentence, which Barrett's office then used as leverage to win her cooperation against Cisneros. During a hearing before Sporkin in June, she said she hoped to get out of prison soon. Her sister and brother-in-law also pleaded guilty to charges of misleading bank officials in the Texas case.
Jones also faced conspiracy and false statements charges in the Washington case; those were dismissed yesterday. In July, Barrett had agreed to dismiss similar charges against two former aides to Cisneros who were accused of helping him deceive the background investigators.
"Some might say the many millions of dollars the independent counsel had to expend is not justified by the seemingly light sanction obtained," declared Sporkin from the bench after the Cisneros plea agreement was entered. "But that is not the true measure of success of one of these proceedings."
Barrett had to prosecute, Sporkin said, adding, "We cannot permit an individual to lie his way into high public office. . . . The work of the independent counsel in this case reaffirms the importance of telling the truth."