One day after congratulating former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros for surviving an independent counsel investigation with a light sentence, President Clinton yesterday was questioned under oath for an hour in the investigation of another Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman.
The White House provided no details about the president's interview with independent counsel Ralph Lancaster, who is investigating influence-peddling charges against Herman, except to note that the president's two personal attorneys, David E. Kendall and Nicole K. Seligman, were present, along with three from the White House counsel's office: Beth Nolan, Cheryl Mills and Karl Racine.
"Consistent with prior practice, no further statement about the interview will be made," Nolan said.
In May 1998, at the request of Attorney General Janet Reno, a panel of judges appointed Lancaster as independent counsel to investigate allegations by an acquaintance that Herman, while a White House aide in Clinton's first term, solicited about $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Lancaster, a Maine attorney, has pursued his investigation with far less publicity than that given to independent counsels in other cases, such as Kenneth W. Starr, whose long-running investigation of Clinton and the first lady is winding down.
Herman has denied the charges, and Clinton has said he believes she will be absolved. Yesterday, Herman's office referred reporters to her lawyer, W. Neil Eggleston, who said, "This matter related to events that occurred while Secretary Herman was at the White House, so I certainly expected that the independent counsel would meet with the president."
In recent weeks, Lancaster has met frequently with a grand jury impaneled at the U.S. District Court in Washington. He was seen in the courthouse for more than three hours yesterday after his questioning of Clinton.
The Herman investigation began in April 1997, when Cameroon-born businessman Laurent J. Yene alleged that Herman had provided White House access to him and his partner Vanessa Weaver when they were representing foreign firms seeking satellite communications projects that required federal approval. Yene said Herman was to receive 10 percent of any business she helped generate for the Yene-Weaver company.
Yene said Herman also directed Weaver to solicit illegal campaign contributions in 1996 from a Singapore businessman who wanted to meet Clinton and get help in a satellite phone venture. The businessman briefly met Clinton in October 1996 at a political fund-raiser in Virginia, which Herman attended. Weaver, a longtime friend of Herman's, was romantically involved with Yene for a time, but her lawyer later called him "a vengeful, lying user."
On Tuesday, Clinton phoned Cisneros after the former housing secretary pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of lying to the FBI about payments he made to a former mistress. The plea, which involves a $10,000 fine, ended a four-year, $9 million investigation by independent counsel David M. Barrett. Clinton called Cisneros "a good friend," adding, "I am pleased that this matter is finally behind him."
Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Alexis Herman