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As Dickens' Mr. Bumble so astutely observed, "The law is a ass."

And never more so than in the squalid, pathetic bit of human folly involved in the Henry Cisneros case. After four years and $9 million-plus, the case against Cisneros, which threatened to put him in prison for 90 years, was settled for a fine and an apology, which is exactly what should have happened four years and $9 million-plus ago.

Cisneros' offense was that he lied to the FBI about the amount of money he had paid his former mistress. Stupid, wasn't it? Everyone already knew about the ex-mistress, and Cisneros told both the Clinton administration and the FBI that he was helping her financially. He lied to the FBI about the amount because he didn't want his wife to find out.

No malice, no harm, no foul, no damage to the public interest. Four years and $9 million-plus over a misdemeanor. How to make a molehill into the Himalayas. Why did the FBI need to know how much he paid her in the first place?

What we have here in part is pure pique on the part of the FBI: Cisneros lied to the FBI! Off with his head!

Given the amount of unverified information, pure gossip and malice that often leaks out of FBI files, this is an amazing display of institutional vanity. And do we think there is any chance that our vaunted FBI is an ever-so-slightly politicized police force at this point?

Note the prosecutor who spent the four years and the $9 million-plus. David Barrett is a well-known Republican fund-raiser, former head of Lawyers for Reagan and -- now here's an item -- one of the lobbyists who made a lot of money pulling strings at the Department of Housing and Urban Development when it was run by Republicans and was rife with abuse and mismanagement.

Cisneros took the scandal-ridden department and in three years turned it around so completely that even congressional Republicans became his fans. Barrett got to be Cisneros' prosecutor by asking a friend to forward his name to Judge David Sentelle, the same right-wing friend of Jesse Helms who appointed Kenneth Starr.

It's a good thing I don't believe in a vast, right-wing conspiracy, or I might think there was something a little smelly about a Republican political activist taking four years to investigate a misdemeanor by the most able and charismatic Hispanic public servant the Democrats ever produced.

The tragedy here is not the fall of Henry Cisneros -- it is the loss of his extraordinary talent in the public sector. This is a man trained for public service, dedicated to it and amazingly good at it. The loss is ours.

And now on to something really revolting -- but fun. Isn't it a great nation? Just when you think you're fresh out of indignation, along comes something to perk you right up.

Mitch McConnell, the senator from tobacco, is always good for a perk, but this time he's outdone himself. McConnell, the special-interest money champion of the entire U.S. Congress and the man who keeps filibustering campaign-finance reform to death, is now on the outs with a bunch of business leaders who are tired of the shakedown put on them by pols like McConnell.

The business outfit is the Committee for Economic Development, which includes the likes of Xerox, GM, Merck and Sara Lee. The CED joined the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, the League of Women Voters, the AARP, etc., in issuing a report endorsing campaign-finance reform. Next thing the CED gets is a threatening letter from McConnell, who, among his other hats, is chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

McConnell said the CED favored "an all-out campaign to eviscerate private-sector participation in politics" and "a radical campaign-finance agenda" and "anti-business speech controls." He then suggested that his correspondents' "public withdrawal from this organization would be a reasonable response." And he now accuses the CED of "unethical conduct."

Edward Kangus, the chairman of Deloitte & Touche, a CED member, said to the Washington Post of his fellow executives that "in many ways, it's a shakedown, and they have no choice but to give . . . especially if they're a regulated industry, they have no choice but to play the game."

Thank you for spelling that out, Mr. Kangus.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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