Two From Tyson Convicted in Espy Probe
By Bill Miller and George Lardner Jr.
A Tyson Foods Inc. executive was convicted yesterday of making illegal gifts to then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in 1993 and the company's chief Washington lobbyist was found guilty of lying to the FBI and other investigators about the favors.
After a four-year, $14 million investigation by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, Espy himself faces trial Oct. 1 on charges stemming from his dealings with the giant poultry corporation and other companies over which he had regulatory power. He has entered a not guilty plea.
Lawyers familiar with the case predicted that Smaltz will now make a determined effort to win the cooperation of the two Tyson officials convicted yesterday, Archibald L. Schaffer III and Jack L. Williams, in the case against Espy.
Schaffer, 50, an Arkansas-based vice president in charge of government and media relations for Tyson, faces up to three years in prison. Williams, 57, Tyson's chief lobbyist here, could draw five years. Both men are slated to be sentenced Sept. 10 by U.S. District Judge James Robertson.
They had been accused of helping to channel about $11,000 in illegal gratuities to Espy and his girlfriend at the time, Patricia Dempsey. The gifts included $6,000 worth of tickets to a January 1993 presidential inaugural dinner; $2,500 worth of air transportation on a private jet to a Tyson family birthday party in Russellville, Ark., in May 1993; and roughly $2,300 worth of airline tickets, skybox tickets, food and limousine service for a January 1994 Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers playoff game.
The jury convicted Schaffer of two counts of providing Espy with illegal gratuities, stemming from the inaugural dinner and the birthday party. Schaffer was acquitted of a third gratuity count involving the birthday celebration.
Williams was convicted on two counts of making false statements to investigators from the Agriculture Department inspector general's office and the FBI. He was acquitted of two gratuities counts stemming from the Dallas game. The two had also been indicted on charges of conspiracy and mail and wire fraud, but Robertson dismissed those counts Tuesday after the prosecution rested.
Defense lawyers, who said they will ask the judge to set aside the verdicts, contended that their clients were unfairly targeted by Smaltz. Williams declined comment as he left the courtroom, and Schaffer said that he intended to appeal. "Obviously we're disappointed," Schaffer said.
Robert W. Ray, the lead prosecutor at the two-week trial, said "the verdict sends a strong message that this sort of activity is not going to be tolerated. The jury said it's not going to be tolerated from lobbyists or from the person at Tyson Foods responsible for lobbying activities."
Don Tyson, former chairman of the world's largest poultry company, and his son, John Tyson, had been named as unindicted co-conspirators in the case along with the company itself and the Tyson Foundation, which provided Dempsey with a $1,200 scholarship. The company struck a deal with Smaltz's office last December, pleading guilty to one illegal gratuity count and agreeing to cooperate with the investigation.
In return, Tyson Foods, which was fined $4 million and ordered to pay another $2 million for the costs of Smaltz's inquiry, was allowed to keep doing its $200 million-a-year business with the federal government.
Prosecutors said that both Williams and Schaffer engaged in deception to cover up their activities. They said Schaffer told Espy's colleagues at the Agriculture Department that Espy was in Russellville for a speech to the Arkansas Poultry Federation and made no mention of the "three-day birthday party." Espy did speak to 15 to 20 poultry people, but the party was the main draw, prosecutors said.
Williams later told investigators he had heard "rumors and news reports" that Espy was a guest at the football game but that he did not know what actually happened. In fact, prosecutors said, Williams had provided Dempsey with airplane tickets to get to the game at Don Tyson's request.
Prosecutors said Tyson Foods was trying to win Espy's help in derailing costly USDA regulations meant to promote the safe handling of poultry and meat products. A federal court judge not Espy killed a labeling plan that Espy planned to put into effect in October 1993 over the protests of Tyson Foods and the poultry industry.
Prosecutors Ray and Barry Coburn contended that it did not matter whether Espy ultimately acted in a way that benefited Tyson Foods, saying that the law prohibits the giving of gifts and favors to government officials if they are meant as a reward for past or future actions.
"We do not allege a bribe occurred in this case," Coburn told the jury in his closing arguments Thursday. "There is no evidence of that in this case. The issue is not . . . whether or not Secretary Espy was bought or could be bought. This case is about what was in the mind of the giver."
Defense lawyers contended that Schaffer and Williams were merely following Don Tyson's orders and that they had no criminal intent. Schaffer's attorney, Joe Robert Caldwell, also maintained that if Don Tyson was trying to get "cozy" with anyone, it was with Espy's girlfriend. "Don Tyson took a fancy to Patricia Dempsey," Caldwell said.
Espy, 44, a former Democratic congressman from Mississippi, became agriculture secretary in January 1993 when President Clinton took office. He resigned in December 1994 after Smaltz's appointment. So far, the independent counsel's probe has resulted in more than a dozen convictions of individuals and businesses.
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