A Star's Fall From Grace

IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 HENRY CISneros met secretly in a motel room at Chicago's O'Hare airport with two top advisers to Walter Mondale just before the former vice president was to become the Democratic nominee for president. The Mondale aides, Jim Johnson and John Reilly, were looking over Cisneros as a potential running mate. As they sat back in their private jet after the interview, Reilly asked Johnson what he thought of the 36-year-old wunderkind mayor of San Antonio. "He reminds me of a thoroughbred racehorse," said Johnson. Reilly agreed: "He could be descended from kings."

That was not an outlandish assessment of the young Henry Cisneros. The tall, handsome son of an army colonel, Cisneros, a graduate of Texas A&M and Harvard, exuded a winning presence, a mixture of ambition and dignity. Though he didn't make it onto the ticket that summer of 1984 (Geraldine Ferraro did), insiders regarded Cisneros as a future governor or senator, possibly the first Hispanic president.

Right now, however, Cisneros is worrying about staying out of prison. Indicted last week on 18 counts of conspiracy, false statements and obstruction of justice, Cisneros is accused of paying hush money to his former mistress to ensure his confirmation as secretary of housing and urban development in 1993. Cisneros admits he's made mistakes but says he will be exonerated. Cisneros's case can be seen as a complex political and legal imbroglio, one more unintended consequence of post-Watergate reforms. But it is perhaps better understood as tragedy.

Cisneros's fall began on a trip to New York City in the early spring of 1987. According to the indictment against him, Cisneros began an affair with a woman named Linda Medlar, a professional fund-raiser. Both were married, Cisneros to his high-school sweetheart, Mary Alice. More than a year later, Cisneros told reporters that he and Medlar were in love and were going to live together. Forgoing a run for a fifth two-year term as mayor of San Antonio, Cisneros left politics to head a private investment company. In 1991, however, he reconciled with his wife. He announced that his duty was to his family, which included two daughters and a young son who had been born with a heart condition that requires expensive care. A little more than a year later, Cisneros was back in politics, the leading contender to succeed Lloyd Bentsen, who was leaving the Senate to become Treasury secretary in the new Clinton administration. Fearing that his infidelity might still cost him with voters, Cisneros decided instead to accept Clinton's offer to become HUD secretary.

Before he could be confirmed, Cisneros underwent a routine background check by the FBI. He told agents that though he had ended the affair, he had made cash payments to Medlar, whose name is now Jones, between 1990 and 1993; the amounts, he said, were never more than $10,000 a year or $2,500 at a time. He explained he felt bad about exposing Jones to negative publicity and said he wanted to help her out financially. The payments, he said, had stopped.

In 1994, however, Jones filed a $250,000 suit against Cisneros, claiming that he had broken a promise to pay her $4,000 a month until her teenage daughter graduated from college. (Cisneros had already paid Jones $200,000, not the lower figure he had given the FBI.) Worse, Jones sold tapes of her conversations with Cisneros to a tabloid TV show. On the tapes, Cisneros can be heard conspiring with Jones to conceal the payments. No chance of getting caught, Cisneros insists. "The FBI loves things that have to do with sex and intimacy and so forth," he says, "but they're real bad at tracking down financial things."

Cisneros might as well have cracked jokes about FBI Director Louis Freeh in a tutu. Bureau officials strongly pushed the Justice Department to prosecute Cisneros for lying to the FBI. Top officials at Justice were reluctant. Usually they don't prosecute for making false statements to the FBI unless there is a serious underlying crime. Still, they felt trapped by a post-Watergate law that requires a special prosecutor when there is "specific and credible evidence" of a crime by top executive-branch officials. Independent counsel David Barrett spent two and a half years and almost $4 million pursuing the case. The indictment alleges that Cisneros was paying Jones more than twice as much as he admitted at the time of his confirmation, and the payments continued through 1993, the year he became secretary.

If Cisneros lied, his motives remain murky. After all, he did not conceal the fact of the payments, the FBI says, just their size and duration. Perhaps, speculated senior Justice officials, he had been trying to keep his wife from learning more about his extramarital liaisons. According to the clotted language of the indictment, Cisneros conspired with Jones to "conceal certain information regarding the true facts and circumstances with respect to his relationship with and payments to Jones and to another woman." The implication is that Cisneros was paying off a second woman besides Jones, but the indictment offers no other details. Cisneros may have had other lovers: the indictment accuses Cisneros of lying when he "stated that he had only one extramarital relationship other than that with Jones."

Making the case roiled the highest levels at Justice and the bureau. A senior FBI agent who was eager to prosecute the former secretary for lying was nonetheless "disgusted" by the mention of Cisneros's other alleged dalliances.

It will probably cost Cisneros millions to fight the charges, which could theoretically land him in prison for 90 years. The emotional cost has already been great. Before he left HUD a year ago to become president of a Hispanic television company, Cisneros gloomily discussed his plight with NEWSWEEK. "This has been mortifying," he said. "I wasn't brought up this way by my conservative Catholic family. I embarrassed my wife and my children. I made a serious mistake." He went on to insist that he was now "happy," but the confidence that once dazzled was long gone.

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