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If any further proof were needed of the folly and danger of the independent counsel act, the case of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros demonstrates why this misbegotten piece of legislation deserves the death sentence Congress imposed on it two months ago.

Cisneros walked away from the federal courthouse last week after pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor count and paying a $10,000 fine for under-stating the amount of financial assistance he provided to a former mistress.

That was all that was left of a case that consumed four years and almost $10 million of taxpayers' money, and cost the government one of its most talented public servants and the Democratic Party one of its brightest stars.

It was a pretty simple story -- the essential elements of which Cisneros had made public long before the Kafkaesque prosecution began. In 1987, Cisneros, while mayor of San Antonio, began an extramarital affair with a woman named Linda Jones. When rumors circulated, Cisneros confirmed them to local reporters, ended the affair and returned to his wife. But he continued to help Jones and her daughter financially.

All this was disclosed to the FBI and the White House when President-elect Clinton was clearing Cisneros for the HUD post. But years later, Jones, in financial and legal trouble of her own, came forward with evidence suggesting Cisneros had understated the amount he had given her.

Attorney General Janet Reno asked for an independent counsel, and the same panel of judges who assigned Kenneth Starr to investigate President Clinton picked a politically active Republican lawyer named David Barrett to go to work on Cisneros. That was in May of 1995. Barrett and his team soon learned that Jones had taped some of her conversations with Cisneros, and they offered her an immunity deal. But her story proved to be erratic, so they turned around and indicted and convicted her of fraud.

With Jones in jail and desperate to get out, Barrett in 1997 indicted Cisneros on 18 felony charges, each of which carried a maximum penalty of five years in jail. The key evidence was the Jones tapes, but she admitted in court that they were not originals, but copies she had edited to protect herself and damage her onetime lover.

So Barrett was probably salvaging what he could get when agreed to let Cisneros plead to one misdemeanor charge, pay a fine and walk away a free man, not even under probation.

This would be bad enough if it were an isolated incident. But it is not. Nine months ago, a jury took only nine hours to acquit former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy of all 30 counts in an indictment another independent counsel, Donald Smaltz, had filed over gifts to Espy worth $35,000 from firms regulated by the Agriculture Department. That investigation lasted four years, cost $17 million and forced Espy to resign from the Cabinet.

Congress, properly appalled by the lack of proportion in these and earlier cases, notably including Starr's endless pursuit of Clinton, let the independent counsel statute lapse earlier this summer.

That may end the abuse, but the books are badly unbalanced. Far too much damage has been done. Republicans were properly outraged that independent counsel Lawrence Walsh decided to reindict former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-contra investigation just days before the 1992 presidential election, stealing the headlines and stopping whatever momentum President Bush was developing in his battle with Clinton.

Now the Democratic casualty list is mounting. Espy, a former member of the House who once had bright prospects of becoming the first African-American governor or senator in Mississippi, is back to square one in his political career.

Cisneros, with his dazzling personality and Hispanic heritage, would have been high on anyone's list for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 2000 and likely a future presidential contender -- had this prosecution not been undertaken.

This whole process has been more than a travesty of justice. It has left a train of wrecked political careers, and the full cost to the nation may never be known.

Washington Post Writers Group

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