Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman was cleared Wednesday of allegations that she accepted illegal payments in exchange for her White House influence, ending an investigation that lasted nearly two years, cost $3 million and highlighted the glaring weaknesses of the now-defunct independent counsel law.
In a one-sentence statement announcing the conclusion of the criminal inquiry, special counsel Ralph Lancaster Jr. said simply that his office will not seek to indict Herman, leading a defense attorney in the case to declare that "hopefully this is the last time the public will have to go through an unnecessarily long and expensive independent counsel investigation."
The inquiry resulted from the largely uncorroborated accusations of Laurent Yene, a West African businessman, who claimed that Herman--while a presidential aide before her appointment to the Labor post--had illegally accepted payments to use her influence on behalf of outside business interests.
Lancaster is required to file a full report in the next several weeks with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which then must decide whether to make the document public.
Herman expressed gratification, "personally and for my family." President Clinton, who was interviewed under oath by Lancaster last fall, praised his Labor secretary Wednesday and said that "she did not deserve what she had to endure."
Yene alleged that Herman entered into a corrupt agreement after selling her Washington consulting firm to a close friend, Vanessa Weaver, and taking a presidential appointment as chief of the White House office of public liaison early in the administration.
Yene, a Cameroon national who also obtained a major share of the firm, told federal investigators that Herman had an agreement to receive 10% of any business she could steer to the company through her White House ties. He also alleged that Herman directed Weaver to line up illegal campaign contributions for the Democratic Party from clients of the firm, known as International Investments and Business Development.
E. Lawrence Barcella, Weaver's attorney and a former federal prosecutor, told investigators from the start that Yene was "an embittered former boyfriend" of Weaver's whose charges were fabricated. Herman and Weaver denied the charges under oath.
In seeking the appointment of an independent counsel in May 1998, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno expressed serious doubts about Yene's accusations, based on a preliminary inquiry by the FBI. But Reno said that the independent counsel law required her to seek a special counsel unless she could positively affirm there was no validity to Yene's claims, a condition she said she could not meet.
W. Neil Eggleston, Herman's attorney, said she cooperated fully with Lancaster, who he said "conducted the investigation with the highest levels of professionalism." Herman testified voluntarily before the grand jury for two days last fall.
Barcella, who criticized the length and cost of the investigation, represented Weaver as well as her sister, Caryliss Weaver. Lancaster also assured him that neither of those women would be charged, he said. In fact, the sole indictment in Lancaster's investigation was against Singapore businessman Abdul Rahman for making $200,000 in illegal political donations to the Democratic Party through the Weaver sisters.
Vanessa Weaver had introduced Herman to Rahman, according to Lancaster's evidence, and Rahman was introduced to Clinton during the 1996 presidential campaign. At the time, Rahman was seeking a Federal Communications Commission license for a company he was representing that wanted to develop a telephone satellite system. The company obtained the license in 1997.
Clinton, in further remarks about the Herman case, said that she "has for many years served our nation with selfless dedication and extraordinary talent." The president added that, "throughout it all, she was never deterred from her mission: making life better for America's working families.
"I am proud to call her my friend, and I am honored that she has been willing to work in this administration on behalf of working people everywhere."
The General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, has calculated that Lancaster's $3-million expenditure was the smallest of five independent counsels who have investigated administration figures.
All the independent counsels, taken together, spent more than $95 million through September, without convicting any major target of a felony, the GAO report showed. One former Cabinet member, Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor last year in an investigation that cost $12 million.
Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his successor, Robert W. Ray, have spent more than $52 million on an investigation that is continuing after more than five years, the GAO reported. Congress refused to reauthorize the Independent Counsel Act when it expired June 30 amid bipartisan sentiment that it was too costly, too cumbersome and often subject to political influences.