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  •   Court Reinstates 3 Charges Against Espy

    By George Lardner Jr.
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page A06

    A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated three felony charges accusing former agriculture secretary Mike Espy of violating the Meat Inspection Act of 1907 by taking gifts from two companies he regulated.

    Espy maintained that the law was meant to punish only front-line meat inspectors who take favors from companies, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District emphatically rejected the claim. For Espy's contentions to prevail, the court said, "there must be ambiguity in the statute -- and we see none."

    The ruling came as two officials of Tyson Foods Inc. went on trial here on charges that they used corporate aircraft, sports tickets and other favors to gain a "cozy" relationship with Espy while new poultry regulations were being considered.

    Lawyers for the two defendants, Tyson's Washington lobbyist, Jack L. Williams, and its chief spokesman, Archibald L. Schaffer II, said they were merely doing what top company executives wanted and that no one at the company thought they could "buy Mike Espy" with the gifts.

    The reinstated charges against Espy, which carry mandatory prison terms of one to three years each, were part of a 39-count indictment stemming from an investigation by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz. Espy, who resigned in late 1994, faces trial before U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina Oct. 1.

    Last December, however, Urbina threw out the three counts alleging that Espy took approximately $4,221 in gifts from Tyson Foods and Quaker Oats Co., both of which are subject to the Meat Inspection Act.

    The law was passed in response to Upton Sinclair's famous book, "The Jungle," and was aimed at ensuring safe meat products. It forbids the acceptance of gratuities by "any inspector, deputy inspector, chief inspector or other officer or employee of the United States authorized to perform any of the duties prescribed" by the law.

    "Espy may well be correct in saying that the paradigm in Congress' mind was a corrupt meat inspector engaged in the actual examination of slaughterhouses; but a corrupt Secretary, who supervises all Agriculture Department employees, obviously could cause an even greater deleterious effect on meat," said the ruling, written by Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman. "All of [Espy's] attempts to restrict the word, 'duty,' to hands on 'meat inspection' are really quite labored."

    Espy's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, said he was considering an appeal. "We are surprised and disappointed that the court of appeals would apply a hundred-year-old statute whose primary purpose was to prevent inspectors in slaughterhouses from being corrupted with booze to a Cabinet secretary for the first time," Weingarten said.

    The court said it was "thoroughly unimpressed" by the fact that no secretary of agriculture had ever been prosecuted under the law. "The Chief Justice of the United States has never been prosecuted for grand theft larceny," Silberman wrote, "but that does not mean that the larceny laws do not apply to him."

    Circuit Judges Stephen M. Williams and James L. Buckley joined in the decision although Buckley disassociated himself from a portion of the ruling dealing with the constitutionality of the 1907 law's removal provisions.

    In his ruling last December, Urbina also dismissed a false statement charge against Espy for allegedly lying to Leon E. Panetta, then President Clinton's chief of staff. In 1994, Panetta conducted an internal investigation into charges that Espy was accepting gifts. The indictment said Espy told Panetta, "There's nothing else out there," when asked about whether he received gratuities.

    The appeals court yesterday upheld the dismissal of this count on the grounds that the false statement statute did not apply to the Executive Office of the President.

    A former congressman from Mississippi, Espy, 44, was indicted on charges of soliciting $35,450 worth of gifts from companies he was supposed to be regulating. His lawyers contend that Smaltz stretched the limits of the federal illegal gratuity statute by accusing Espy of breaking the law by accepting gifts and meals from longtime friends.

    Espy is still fighting most of the counts in the indictment on the grounds that the gifts he took have not been tied to any specific acts that he performed.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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