THE CABINET CLINTON DESERVES
Oct 12, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 05 • By DAVID FRUM
Former housing and urban development secretary Henry Cisneros also goes to trial this fall on charges of lying to the FBI about payments to a former mistress, Linda Medlar. Cisneros and Medlar started their affair in 1987, when he was mayor of San Antonio and she was a campaign aide. The affair became public the next year, and Cisneros retired from politics.
Cisneros succeeded in patching up his marriage after the scandal. Medlar had more trouble: She divorced and was unable to find work to support herself and her daughter. After Cisneros returned to his wife, he began making cash payments to Medlar -- payments that totaled over $ 250,000 between 1989 and 1994. In 1993, Cisneros got the tap to join the Clinton cabinet and was asked by the FBI about his relationship with Medlar. He told them that he had paid her no more than $ 10,000 a year. In 1994, Medlar exposed the story, and an independent counsel was appointed. In December 1997, Cisneros was indicted.
Cisneros has by and large received very sympathetic media treatment, in part because Medlar is an unappealing character. (She had been indicted herself for tampering with evidence.) But take a second look. Yes, he was the victim of blackmail. But unanswered questions swirl about his case, of which the most important is, Where did the $ 250,000 come from? Cisneros was not a rich man, and while he seems to have earned a comfortable living in his four years in the private sector, he had two college-age daughters and a sick son to support. The independent counsel's indictment notes that Cisneros's political supporters offered to provide Medlar with a job. Did any of them give him money for her too? If so, did those gifts cease when Cisneros entered the Clinton administration?
And what about Cisneros's tax liability? The FBI wasn't asking about the size of his payments to Medlar out of prurience: There's a federal tax due on gifts of more than $ 10,000 per year, and there's no record of Cisneros's ever having paid it. Tax chiseling is a serious crime. Lying to the FBI is a serious crime, too -- although when Cisneros comes to trial, we can expect to be told: If you're cheating on your taxes and paying blackmail with money that comes from who-knows-where, of course you're going to lie about it.
Questions have been raised about Alexis Herman's ethics ever since she served in the Carter administration. As an official in the Labor Department between 1977 and 1981, she steered millions of dollars of grants to groups like Jesse Jackson's PUSH. Jackson's group was in those days arm-twisting corporations into agreeing to quotas for minority contractors -- and after Herman left government, it was her firm that Jackson urged companies to hire to monitor the quotas.
Herman's private-sector career over the next dozen years was lucrative. She did especially well out of real estate, getting a slice of the action in downtown-Washington developments -- including the Ronald Reagan Building -- from developers who understood that taking care of friends of Jesse Jackson could speed approval by Marion Barry's city hall. A protege of Ron Brown's, Herman went to work in the Clinton administration, where her main duty seemed to be fund-raising for the 1996 Clinton campaign. (Herman arranged the bulk of the "it's only coffee" White House fund-raisers.) As a reward for a job well done, she succeeded Robert Reich as labor secretary in 1997.
Almost immediately, an African businessman named Laurent Yene stepped forward to accuse Herman of demanding kickbacks from him. In 1994, Yene had gone into business with -- and set up housekeeping with -- a good friend of Herman's named Vanessa Weaver. Weaver had bought Herman's diversity-consulting business when Herman joined the Clinton administration, and between 1994 and 1996 Weaver visited Herman at the White House some two dozen times, often in the company of her clients. Yene charges that Weaver and he had an understanding with Herman that they would pay Herman 10 percent of any business she helped to generate. He also charges that Herman pushed Weaver to ask clients to make donations to the 1996 Clinton campaign.