Espy's Former Chief of Staff Sentenced to 27 Months|
By Bill Miller
The sentence for Ronald H. Blackley, 47, Espy's former chief of staff, was the longest sentence to date in an independent counsel's investigation of Espy's dealings. Espy is awaiting trial on charges that he actively solicited $35,458 worth of gifts from companies he was supposed to be regulating.
Blackley, of Woodbridge, was convicted Dec. 1 by a jury in U.S. District Court here of failing to disclose his outside income on government financial disclosure forms and then lying about the money to investigators.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth gave Blackley a much stricter sentence than designated in federal sentencing guidelines, citing his position as second-in-command at the Agriculture Department. Blackley could have been sentenced to probation following his conviction on three charges of making false statements.
"He clearly continued to receive money from businesses, although he was not supposed to do so," Lamberth said. "Then he lied under oath. . . . This court has a duty to send a message to other high-level government officials that there is a severe penalty to be paid for providing false statements under oath."
In court yesterday, Blackley denied any wrongdoing, saying he never meant to mislead anyone.
Defense attorney Sheldon Krantz contended that $10,000 of the money Blackley received was actually a loan and that the rest came from work Blackley performed before coming to Washington. Blackley had previously worked in Mississippi as a consultant for farmers and as a part-time aide to Espy while Espy was in Congress. However, prosecutors said, Blackley promised to sever all business dealings in January 1993 when he became Espy's chief of staff.
Blackley was required under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to report any gifts and outside income he received. He failed to report that in 1993 he received $21,025 from farmer Charles Fuller and $1,000 from another farmer, Charles "Buddy" Cochran. They were longtime friends and clients of his who got more than $400,000 in USDA subsidies in 1993, prosecutors said.
William F. Fahey, a lawyer in the office of independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, said Blackley deliberately hid the income on the disclosure form and later attempted to deceive investigators.
Smaltz has won more than a dozen convictions in his 3 1/2-year investigation into Espy's acceptance of gifts from individuals and firms doing business with the Agriculture Department. Blackley is the highest-ranking government official convicted so far. Espy's trial has been postponed while Smaltz appeals a judge's decision to dismiss four of the 39 counts filed against him.
Blackley, who left the Agriculture Department in 1995 to join the U.S. Agency for International Development, is now out of work and "barely able to keep his family afloat," his attorney said. Krantz asked the judge to permit Blackley to remain free pending appeal. Lamberth said he needed time to study that request. For now, Blackley is free on personal recognizance.
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