Poor Timing, Again: Cisneros Probe Comes As HUD Cuts Near

THE third special-prosecutor investigation of the Clinton administration begins, like the others, at an awkward time and place.

Attorney General Janet Reno formally requested the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros on Monday -- Monday of the very week the House votes whether to take back a quarter of HUD's current budget. The counsel is to probe whether Mr. Cisneros misled federal agents about the size of payments he made to his former mistress. Felony charges are possible.

The Clinton administration is roughly keeping on pace with the Reagan administration, which drew seven separate special-prosecutor investigations over a decade. The Reagan record for scandals was ''as impressive'' as the emerging Clinton record, says Suzanne Garment, author of a book on Washington ethics-investigation machinery.

Cisneros is one of two Clinton Cabinet secretaries who have undertaken radical redesigns of their Byzantine bureaucracies. Both have suffered major scandal problems. At the US Department of Agriculture, Secretary Mike Espy had pushed his downsizing and restructuring through Congress before he resigned as a special counsel opened an inquiry into his acceptance of favors from a chicken processor.

At HUD, Cisneros has really only drafted a blueprint of his reorganized agency -- a blueprint that has become part of his lobbying pitch against deep budget cuts. But scandal has now put his tenure in serious jeopardy, although he vows to stay on and fight the charges.

The first and largest independent-counsel investigation of the Clinton administration under way, of course, is the Whitewater inquiry. This began in January 1994, just as the administration began its long legislative drive for Clinton's main goal as president, health-care reform. The inquiry and the congressional hearings about it in late spring helped to weaken the political credibility of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the chief architect of the health-care plan, which failed.

Two other members of the Clinton Cabinet face questions under review by the Justice Department, which will determine whether to recommend special prosecutors in each case.

One is Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who has transformed his agency into an aggressive promoter of, and broker for, American business overseas. Mr. Brown faces a stream of questions over whether he skirted the law on taxes or financial disclosure and whether he took money from people seeking favors from Commerce. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena faces criticism because a transit contract was awarded in 1993 to the management firm he had just left.

The Whitewater inquiries have already cost several senior Clinton officials their jobs because of how they dealt with the investigation. One is President Clinton's original White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, who resigned last March. The others are former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Treasury General Counsel Jean Hanson, who departed a few months later.

Still another senior official, Webster Hubbell, was the third-ranking Justice Department official and the closest White House contact there, until he resigned just before pleading guilty to cheating his former law partners and clients out of $400,000 while in private practice. A long-time associate of Mrs. Clinton and a key player in vetting other Clinton appointments, Mr. Hubbell is awaiting sentencing.

Two more visible Clinton administration figures, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, were forced out over policy and performance matters. Mr. Aspin resigned over military policy in Somalia, while Ms. Elders was ousted for her provocatively liberal views on sexuality.

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