Henry Cisneros and the Starr syndrome

Taped conversations, a lawsuit by a woman named Jones and a zealous independent counsel. Sound familiar? But the former HUD secretary faces not impeachment, but 90 years in prison.


Guy Raz
June 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Mayor Henry Cisneros, the middle-class boy wonder of Mexican San Antonio, stood on his front porch one afternoon in October 1988 and bared his tortured soul to the world. Cisneros confirmed what San Antonio had been whispering about for months: He had been carrying on an extramarital affair, with his campaign fund-raiser, for over a year.

"I am not made of plastic and wiring, but blood and flesh and feeling," he told the media attack dogs, who were poised to snap outside his home. "In the course of a lifetime, these things happen. I can't be sorry for life." Almost instantly, it seemed, Cisneros had neutralized the negative publicity, killing the story with kindness.

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Actually, it had only gone into remission.

Almost 11 years later, this September, Cisneros will stand trial for more errors of "blood and flesh and feeling." The former Housing and Urban Development secretary stands accused of 18 counts of conspiracy, lying to a law enforcement officer, concealment and obstruction of justice, related to payments he made to his former lover, Linda Jones (formerly Medlar). He lied about them to the FBI during a routine background check after his HUD appointment. He admitted the payments, mind you, but lied about their size, and encouraged Jones to lie, too. Jones later sued Cisneros for cutting off the payments, and gave tapes of their telephone conversations about the money to the independent counsel.

This week in Washington, at a pretrial hearing in U.S. District Court, Jones made her debut as the government's star witness and testified against Cisneros. For almost three years, she cooperated with independent counsel David Barrett -- although she, too, ran afoul of him for lying, and wound up in jail. Still, Jones provided the secret, selectively edited tapes that became the backbone of Barrett's prosecution of the former housing secretary for his alleged transgressions.

But exactly what were those transgressions, and how did the boy scout of the Clinton administration come to face more than 90 years in prison for them -- a fate worse than any of Kenneth Starr's victims were ever threatened with? Here we go again: Tales of sex and secretly taped conversations, a lawsuit by a woman named Jones and a zealous independent counsel. But instead of facing impeachment and acquittal, like President Clinton, Cisneros had his political career ruined, and he could spend the rest of his life in jail.

In a town filled with so-called experts eager to weigh in on the topic of government scandals, it's hard to find anyone who can explain what happened to Cisneros, and why. The trial of Henry Cisneros is likely to confirm only what we already knew: that Washington's investigative culture is out of control.

During a routine background check after his nomination to head HUD in 1992, Cisneros disclosed on his Standard Form-86 that he had made cash payments to help support a former lover. FBI investigators followed up with Cisneros on the matter. The secretary-designate assured the investigators that indeed, he had paid a former mistress, but the payments were small and voluntary, never exceeding $10,000 per annum.

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He was about $30,000 short in his disclosure to the feds.

So Cisneros was lying. The combination of the spurned lover, a grieving wife still dealing with the shame of his very public affair, and the questions that the size of his payments to Jones would trigger, Cisneros has said, led him to tell a simpler story. Simpler, but technically false. But the complex truth might have forced him to answer embarrassing questions about the matter in front of a Senate confirmation panel, he wagered, and in front of America, too. "His instinct was human," says Bruce Buchanan, longtime Cisneros-watcher and professor of government at the University of Texas, "but self-destructive. He tried to make arrangements [to keep him] from getting into trouble."

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It worked, for a while. The confirmation process passed without a hitch. Former Mayor Cisneros became HUD Secretary Cisneros.

Given that only four years earlier San Antonio pundits were writing Cisneros' political obituary, his ascent to the top office at HUD was both a personal and professional triumph. Because back in October 1988, when the mayor's affair with Jones, the San Antonio socialite, became public knowledge, his political future was judged over.

For almost a year, the Cisneros-Jones affair was the worst-kept secret in San Antonio. Everyone knew the mayor had fallen in love with his chief fund-raiser, and for a while, Cisneros treated every reporter, lobbyist and local official like a personal shrink. He went so far as to hold closed-door heart-to-hearts with the editorial boards of San Antonio's two major dailies, expressing his personal anguish and conflicted conscience. Jones, he told them, brought him joy during his troubled marriage. The story scandalized San Antonio's political establishment, and some of Cisneros' Mexican-American supporters, too. Cheating on his devoutly religious Hispanic wife, Mary Alice, with the blonde socialite, Jones, was too much for some of his supporters to take.

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But Cisneros followed his heart, left politics and moved in with Jones. She divorced her husband. Depending on who's telling the tale, Cisneros either urged Jones to avoid making financial demands in the divorce settlement in order to protect his reputation and political future (her version), or he stayed out of it, and she voluntarily chose to leave her marriage with almost nothing (his).

In either case, the Cisneros-Jones relationship ended a year later, when the former mayor decided to work things out with his wife, Mary Alice. The couple has a son -- John Paul, named for the Pope -- born with a heart defect who continued to have taxing medical problems, and a guilt-stricken Cisneros had realized he could not abandon his family. Because Jones didn't receive any cash out of her divorce settlement, she was left broke. To add to her woes, she claims she couldn't find a job after the affair came to light, because no one was willing to hire her.

Cisneros then decided to support his former lover with voluntary payments until Jones' daughter graduated from college. Jones claims Cisneros promised $4,000 a month. Cisneros says no dollar amount was specified. They had no written contract.

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According to Jones, monthly payments of around $4,000 continued through much of Cisneros' first year as HUD secretary. Then, in the fall of 1993, they stopped. With a government salary of $148,000, two daughters in college, and a son whose heart trouble required constant medical attention, Cisneros couldn't afford to continue supporting Jones as well. The secretary deposited a lump sum -- Jones and the independent counsel say it was $75,000; Cisneros denies that, but hasn't specified a sum --in Jones' bank account, stopped returning her phone calls, and returned fully to his marriage.

But Jones had used the cash to buy a home in Lubbock, Texas, and when the installments from Cisneros stopped, she no longer could make payments on the home. So in July 1994, she sued Cisneros for "breach of contract" and sold her story to the television tabloid "Inside Edition" for $15,000. She also went public with hundreds of hours of secretly recorded telephone conversations with the HUD secretary. The tapes revealed that Cisneros, during the time of the background check, urged his former lover to come clean about the relationship, and the payments, to FBI investigators, but to underestimate the value of the payments.

"I don't understand why this would cause a problem," Jones asked him. "Because it looks like a payoff," he replied on the tapes. The FBI, Cisneros insisted, was staffed by Mormons, "gossipers and scandalizers like everybody else" consumed with sexual impropriety and "real bad at tracking down financial things." He was right, too. If Jones had never released the secret tapes, the FBI would never have known. (In pre-trial depositions this week, Jones admitted she edited the tapes, on the advice of her lawyers, to take out her own threats against Cisneros, which might have sounded like "extortion," she said.)

There wasn't anything illegal about the transactions themselves; Cisneros simply preferred not to talk about the issue publicly. But when it became clear that the secretary lied to FBI investigators, he was in real trouble.

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Former Sens. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., and Donald Riegle, D-Mich., quickly intervened on the HUD secretary's behalf, sending separate letters to Attorney General Janet Reno before the appointment of the independent prosecutor, insisting that had they known the full extent of payments to Jones, it would have made no difference in his confirmation. But Reno decided to appoint a special prosecutor, anyway.

"The reason why there is an independent counsel in this case is because the FBI takes this kind of conduct seriously," says John Barrett, a former prosecutor who worked on the Iran-Contra investigation. "Janet Reno pulled the trigger on this because [FBI Director] Louis Freeh wanted her to."

Thanks to the growing scandal, Cisneros decided not to serve a second term as HUD secretary. Three years, 30 full-time staffers, and $9 million later, Henry Cisneros was indicted by special prosecutor David M. Barrett. The story didn't end well for Jones, either: She ran afoul of Barrett and the FBI for her own lies, including not admitting the tapes she gave them were edited copies. She is now serving a three and a half year prison sentence, having pled guilty to 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction, though prosecutors acknowledge her sentence could be reduced for cooperating with the prosecution of Cisneros.

So that's the story. Henry Cisneros lied to the FBI about the size of voluntary (and legal) payments to a woman he once loved. And for that offense, he faces a punishment harsher than Richard Nixon, Oliver North or President Clinton ever received.

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But that's what happens to people like Cisneros under our current investigatory system. Peter Morgan and Glenn Reynolds, authors of the book "The Appearance of Impropriety" pointed this out a few years ago. "Convoluted ethical systems not only chase out good individuals," they wrote. "They also actively sort for individuals who are so determined to acquire power or adoration, or whatever, that they will endure just about anything to get it."

In the Cisneros case, that venerated institution, the independent counsel, which was created to keep executive-level officials from committing Nixonian crimes, has become a sexual morality police rather than a legitimate anti-corruption force.

The same legal apparatus that has sought to expose public officials guilty of bribe-taking and funneling illegal funds to death squads in Latin America became consumed with the transgressions of a man who tried to cover-up details of an embarrassing extramarital affair. "Here we have lying about your mistress versus subverting the Constitution [in the case of Iran-Contra]," says Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity. "The fundamental issue today is our inability to distinguish between the 'significant' and the 'insignificant.'"

Cisneros' actions cast a shadow over an otherwise stellar career. During his tenure, the secretary oversaw the demolition of more than 24,000 drug-ridden, gang-infested public housing units and relocated their residents to more dignified dwellings. His department took control over troubled local housing departments in New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit. He continued Jack Kemp's pragmatic program of developing urban "empowerment zones"-- "capitalism with a human face" as the Germans would say -- but with rhetoric more Huey Newton than Barry Goldwater.

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If his first few years on the job were meant to serve as a guide to the way America's housing crisis would be tackled thereafter, Cisneros' actions were heavy on important symbolism, though he didn't get to carry out his agenda. He slept in housing projects in Chicago and New York, he attended the funeral of a homeless woman who died on a metal grate outside the offices at HUD, and after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, his casual presence was so ubiquitous in and around relief sites, he was often confused as a crisis volunteer.

By contrast, Cisneros' starched-shirt predecessor, Samuel R. Pierce, practically gave his friends the PIN number to the Housing Department's bank account and got off, scot-free. No trial, no charges.

Last October, the independent counsel inquiry into Pierce's dealings at HUD concluded that "a pervasive pattern of criminal behavior" ran through the halls of Pierce's HUD. Pierce, the report said, was the "central person."

Pierce's colleague at HUD, Joseph A Strauss, was placed on probation for accepting kickbacks from developers eager to land lucrative government contracts. His assistant, Deborah Gore Dean, was convicted for helping her politically connected buddies land federal contracts and received a 21-month jail sentence, but she has yet to serve one day in prison. All told, some 17 Reagan-era HUD officials were found guilty of corruption. The U.S. government recovered over $10 million in stolen funds, most intended for low income housing.

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Cisneros' trial shows how far the official anti-corruption apparatus has strayed from its original intention. Almost every previous investigation directed toward the misdeeds of a federal official illuminates the insignificance of Cisneros' actions.

Compare former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski embezzling taxpayer funds, or former Speaker Newt Gingrich profiting from his position with a book deal or former Sen. Robert Packwood engaging in sexual harassment. Consider that out of the 17 known independent counsel inquiries (two are under seal), only Cisneros' case involves conduct during background investigations, and nothing he did while in office. In all but one instance, those under investigation faced (or face) charges of using their positions to fatten their own wallets or further their careers, and told lies while in office about questionable behavior while in office.

Former Reagan deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, for instance, was investigated for but never indicted on charges of illegal lobbying. But a jury concluded that he did lie to Congress about his activities and he was given a three year suspended prison sentence. Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese was investigated for allegedly helping his friend Lyn Nofziger secure a lucrative defense contract for Nofziger's client Wedtech. Despite lingering suspicions, Meese was cleared of wrongdoing. Former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's alleged wrongdoing -- accepting illegal gifts from powerful industry groups -- was certainly valid grounds for an investigation, even though he was later acquitted.

And while a parallel can be made between Cisneros' case and the president's, Clinton only received a contempt citation -- the legal equivalent of a spank on the tush -- for deciding to cover up his relationship. He never faced jail time for transgressions far more egregious.

Ultimately, of course, the Senate acquitted Clinton, judging that the independent counsel had gone too far. It's possible that Washington's notoriously anti-prosecution jury pool, which gave a break even to Republican Ollie North, will do the same thing for Cisneros, and acquit him of small crimes for which he's already paid dearly.


Guy Raz

Guy Raz is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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