With Friends like These

Article excerpt

The former HUD secretary's trial on charges involving sexual misconduct and hush money begins next month, with the president scheduled as a character witness.

President Clinton may be headed back to court. Not for Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones but for Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of housing and urban development. Clinton is listed as one of Cisneros' character witnesses, but the defense may have a change of heart and not call the president to the stand during the six-month trial scheduled to begin Nov. 4, the day after the midterm elections, involving lying about payoffs to a mistress. Considering Clinton's own legal troubles and his confessed mendacity, say legal experts, his credibility surely would come under attack during cross-examination by Independent Counsel David Barrett.

While Cisneros may not want anywhere near his trial an adulterous president who once described the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, as a "man of integrity and character" sources tell Insight the prosecutor sure would. A former Republican lobbyist and GOP fund-raiser, Barrett and his team of investigators -- five attorneys and six full-time FBI special agents -- would like nothing more than to interrogate Clinton under oath. That could open the door for hard questions posed to the president about his own possible role in the Cisneros sex and money scandal.

Especially interesting to investigators is an alleged face-to-face meeting between Cisneros and Clinton on Dec. 13, 1992. According to sources close to the probe, Cisneros told Clinton about the payoffs. Insight reported early this year that Clinton knew everything before Cisneros testified at his Senate confirmation hearings ("Hush-Money Scandal Could Speak Volumes," Jan. 12-19).

That fact raises a series of legal questions about whether Clinton was part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice and why he failed to report Cisneros' alleged lies to the Justice Department and Senate. The Senate did not ask one question at the confirmation hearings about the mistress affair because, during the vetting process, someone removed that segment from the FBI file, according to sources.

While most details of that private meeting between Clinton and Cisneros never have been made public, what is a matter of public record is that the next day Cisneros filed a supplement to his FBI disclosure form, providing a copy to Clinton's people. Four days later Clinton nominated Cisneros for HUD secretary.

Regardless of whether Clinton takes the stand on behalf of the onetime political heartthrob who was on a shortlist of vice-presidential candidates for Walter Mondale in 1984, Cisneros is in serious trouble.

Barrett's case, laid out in a 66-page indictment, comes to this: Cisneros acknowledged supporting an ex-mistress, Linda Medlar Jones, but he didn't tell the truth about the amount of the payments--he was nearly $190,000 short of the target. According to the prosecutor's case, he apparently urged two subordinates--Sylvia Arce-Garcia and John D. Rosales, who also are facing conspiracy charges--to lie about it and in exchange gave them HUD jobs. One other charge is that he lied when he told the FBI he only had one adulterous relationship during his marriage, the indictment says.

Insight has learned Democratic former Texas Gov. Ann Richards reluctantly will testify for the prosecution because she learned about the hush money when she approached Cisneros to run for Lloyd Bentsen's Senate seat. Her response? According to one of the many taped conversations between Cisneros and Jones now in the prosecutor's hands, "There are several aspects of [the payments] that worry her deeply," Cisneros says on the tape. "She's concerned about the money and convinced that's a killer."

Cisneros added fuel to the fire when he told Jones in another taped conversation that the "FBI loves things that have to do with sex and intimacy and so forth, but they're real bad at tracking down financial things. …