Washington Watch: When Will They Ever Learn?

AS THE 1998 midterm congressional elections loom, the indictment of former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros once again raises the question: When will establishment liberals realize that any reconstruction of progressive politics is doomed unless it incorporates zero tolerance of corruption? In the Reagan/Bush years, it was the liberal Democrats in Congress who, supported by the beltway punditocracy, insisted on the need for the independent counsel statute, and the GOP which opposed it. In the Clinton administration, those roles have been reversed -- and the example most often cited as "inappropriate" or the "criminalization of political differences" has been the independent counsel in the Cisneros case.The White House's defenders have long encouraged the notion that the probe of Cisneros was nothing more than sordid scratching around in the secretary's tangled private life. But the $250,000 in payoffs Cisneros made to his ex-mistress -- who was also his former fundraiser -- , and then concealed both from Congress and the FBI, has always raised the possibility that the HUD chief could have been the target of blackmail and coercion.Then there's the problem of where Cisneros, not a wealthy man, got the money. Part of it came from an influence-buying, wheeler-dealer Texas real estate developer of shady reputation who had business before HUD. Cisneros was caught on tape admonishing his ex-mistress for having accepted one hush-money payment that he had borrowed from the developer in the form of a traceable check instead of cash. In that same conversation, Cisneros revealed that he was aware the developer was under federal investigation at the time of the loan.This much has been known for some time. But the indictment revealed a new shocker: Cisneros promised jobs at HUD to two former employees of they'd lie to investigators about all this. That's witness tampering and the subornation of perjury by anyone's definition. Every school kid is taught that a public office is a public trust. Cisneros' actions violated that trust, and his lies about them made a mockery out of the constitutionally mandated Senate confirmation process. In any case, it's hard to have much sympathy for a man who betrayed the poor people -- who were his base in Texas politics -- by authoring the outrageously anti-civil libertarian "one strike and you're out" rule for public housing. Cisneros deserves what he gets.Meanwhile, Ostrich General Janet Reno's testimony before the House Government Oversight Committee provided more strong evidence of the need for an independent counsel to investigate campaign financing. Among other things, she was forced to admit that her Justice Department has so far failed to conduct even a preliminary investigation into the money-laundering activities of one Antonio Pan.Pan is a former executive of the infamous Indonesia-based Lippo group, which sent John Huang off to be its mole in the Commerce Department with a million-dollar bonus and later secured, at Clinton's direction, Huang's appointment as Democratic National Committee finance vice-chair. Huang was one of the Clinton operatives in soliciting money for the Democrats via Clinton's 50th birthday bash. Two weeks before that fabulous fete, according to the Los Angeles Times, Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie (now a fugitive in Beijing) received $200,000 from the Bank of China account of the mysterious Macao casino billionaire known as "Mr. Wu." A week later, Trie wired $80,000 to a California account controlled by Antonio Pan, who picked up the money in cash. Pan then found seven straw "donors" -- none of whom had ever previously contributed to the Democrats -- who wrote $5,000 and $10,000 checks to the DNC. They were reimbursed by Pan, in cash, of course. Pan is also implicated in a separate scheme by which he reimbursed Trie's sister for a $25,000 donation in her name to the DNC.For the $60,000 that Pan laundered for Clinton's birthday fundraiser, DNC records list Trie as the "solicitor" and Huang as the "contact." Even though Huang was hand-picked by Clinton for his DNC job, Janet Reno continues to insist that there are "no reasonable grounds to believe that a further investigation is warranted" into whether Clinton and his top White House aides knew of or condoned the illegal scheme. And by admitting that she has yet to probe Pan, Reno illustrates the pertinence of the independent counsel statute's conflict of interest provision: Reno can't credibly investigate her boss, and in fact has not done so.Most polls show Americans are about evenly divided on Reno's decision not to seek an outside prosecutor for Donorgate. But among registered independent voters, a substantial majority disapprove of her choice. Those are precisely the voters who will determine the outcome of congressional races in some 60 swing districts. That's bad news for Democrats-and for the liberals who keep pooh-poohing the corruption issue.


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