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THE CISNEROS PLEA DEAL

It took four years and $9 million but Independent Counsel David M. Barrett finally nailed Henry G. Cisneros -- on a misdemeanor.

The former Housing Secretary, who was named in December 1997 in an indictment that accused him of 18 felonies, including conspiracy, making false statements and obstructing justice, pleaded guilty Tuesday.

Prosecutors had accused him of lying to the FBI and others during a background check in 1993, prior to his cabinet appointment, to hide details about how much money he gave to former mistress Linda Jones.

Cisneros pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI. He will pay a $10,000 fine but there will be no prison time or probation and other charges will be dropped.

It's a pretty sad conclusion to an investigation that took so long and cost so much.

The affair between Cisneros, a four-term mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Ms. Jones, known then as Linda Medlar, was old news by the time Clinton tapped him for the cabinet. Each was married in 1987 when it started. The following year, Cisneros publicly broke it off and reconciled with his wife.

After leaving the mayor's office, Cisneros began giving money to Ms. Jones. He later characterized the payments as a humanitarian gesture while prosecutors called it "hush money."

The allegations against him surfaced in 1994 when Ms. Jones, who had hoped to make a new life with Cisneros, filed a civil suit against him for more than $250,000 and went on the television show "Inside Edition" to accuse him of lying to the FBI.

During the background check, Cisneros claimed he gave Ms. Jones no more than $10,000 a year and had severed contact with her. Investigators alleged he was still in contact with her and still making payments that totaled $264,000 over a number of years.

While the plea deal certainly looks like a gift, considering Cisneros was accused of 18 felonies, the case relied heavily on the testimony of Ms. Jones, who is serving a 42-month prison term for bank fraud and other crimes.

Obviously, lying to the FBI is serious. But in a case involving a relationship between a man and mistress -- a matter that should be none of the government's business -- four years and $9 million seem an excessive price to pay for truth -- a questionable investment of tax dollars.

The Cisneros episode is another example of how an independent counsel can run amok. It validates the wisdom of letting the Independent Counsel Law expire as it did earlier this year.

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