David M. Barrett, dogged Washington investigator
David M. Barrett, 76, who owned a home in North Shores, Rehoboth Beach, died recently.
He was a Washington lawyer with Republican ties, and was one of six so-called independent counsels sworn in during the Clinton administration to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by government officials. His inquiry concerned Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, who was accused of lying in 1993 during an FBI background check about payments he had made to a former mistress while he was mayor of San AntoniO.
The inquiry by Mr. Barrett, who died Jan. 22, 2014, at 76, was not as closely watched as some of the others by independent counsels, particularly the one headed by Kenneth Starr, which led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But it was historic in other ways.
At 10 years and eight months, the Barrett investigation was the longest in the history of the office of the independent counsel, which was created by Congress in 1978 to prevent executive branch interference in criminal investigations of White House officials. Judges appointed the chief investigators.
As it turned out, Mr. Barrett’s inquiry was also the last.
Mr. Cisneros, a married father of three and a one-time rising star in the Democratic Party, had been open about his affair during pre-confirmation interviews with the FBI, disclosing that he had paid the woman a monthly stipend for some years after it had ended. The question to be answered was whether he had lied about the amount he paid and why he had paid it. He said it was about $10,000 a year, freely given to help a friend. The allegation was that he had paid her about $60,000 a year in exchange for her silence.
The inquiry was initially expected to last six months. But Mr. Barrett came to view the case as the tip of an iceberg of tax fraud, conspiracy and, later on, a cover-up by highly placed White House officials, and he kept a staff of more than a dozen lawyers and FBI officers working on it from 1995, when he was appointed, until early 2006.
By then, the impeachment drama was history. The independent counsel investigations involving Mr. Clinton’s secretaries of labor, commerce, interior and agriculture had concluded without significant convictions.
Alarmed by the number and length of the inquests, Congress let the clock run out on the independent counsel law in 1999, when it was up for a five-year reauthorization vote. Mr. Barrett continued his work under a provision in the law permitting the completion of continuing investigations.
Over the 10 years of his inquiry, Mr. Barrett won a single misdemeanor conviction against Mr. Cisneros, in 1997. He also developed information that led to a prison term for the former mistress, Linda Medlar Jones, on an unrelated bank fraud charge.
Mr. Barrett admitted to being frustrated. Introducing a 750-page report in 2006 detailing what he said was “a substantial and coordinated cover-up” by Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service officials, Mr. Barrett said, “In the end, enough high-ranking officials with enough power were able to blunt any effort to bring about a full and independent examination” of all the allegations.
“The question is why,” he added. “And the question will regrettably go unanswered. Unlike some cover-ups, this one succeeded.”
Mr. Clinton pardoned Mr. Cisneros and Ms. Jones in 2001, on his last day in office.
Mr. Barrett’s death, which was announced but not widely reported at the time, was confirmed by his son, Peter, who said the cause was heart failure.
David Martin Barrett was born April 21, 1937, in Buffalo, N.Y. to Edward and Kathryn Barrett and grew up in South Bend, Ind., where his father was a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame in 1959, served in the Navy for two years and graduated with honors from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1965.
Mr. Barrett was an assistant United States attorney in Washington, D.C. before returning to South Bend to teach law at Notre Dame and serve as the county attorney of St. Joseph County, of which South Bend is the seat.
In 1975, he established a private practice in Washington and became involved in Republican politics. He was special counsel to the House Ethics Committee in 1979-80 when it investigated Rep. Daniel J. Flood, a Pennsylvania Democrat, on corruption charges. He was also chairman of Lawyers for Reagan in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency.
In the dozen years before he was appointed an independent counsel, Mr. Barrett became known as a lawyer with access to top-level appointees in the Reagan administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, including some involved in a widespread influence-peddling scandal during the 1980s.
Mr. Barrett was never accused of involvement in the scandal. Still, Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, which had investigated the HUD scandal, called Mr. Barrett’s appointment as independent counsel in the Cisneros case “mind-boggling.”
Mr. Barrett countered that he had disclosed his dealings with HUD to the three-judge panel that appointed him. “All of those matters were fully disclosed,” he said.
Mr. Cisneros, who had reconciled with his wife before the investigation began, resigned from his cabinet post in 1997 and later became the president and chief operating officer of Univision, the Spanish-language television corporation.
Besides his son, Mr. Barrett is survived by his wife, Kathleen O’Hara Barrett; three daughters, Kristin Patterson of Milton, Julie Barrett Hanlon and Laura Plunkett; and nine grandchildren. Another daughter, Megan Barrett, died in 2008.