Los Angeles Attorney Chosen to Head Investigation of Espy
By Pierre Thomas and Howard Schneider
A federal panel yesterday named Los Angeles lawyer Donald C. Smaltz as independent counsel to investigate whether Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted gifts from companies regulated by his department.
Smaltz, 57, is a former assistant U.S. attorney for California's Southern District who has specialized more recently in white-collar criminal defense.
In 1989 he was reportedly on a short list of names of candidates to become U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. He serves as chairman of the disciplinary committee of the federal district court for California's Central District and has lectured for a decade at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.
"Don is a first-rate lawyer," said Michael Klowden, managing partner for the Los Angeles offices of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius where Smaltz worked 1987 through 1992. "He is the first person I would want on my side and the last person I would want on the other side."
Klowden described Smaltz as a Republican "but not overly political."
The court granted Smaltz authority to probe whether Espy has "committed a violation of any federal law ... relating in any way to the acceptance of gifts by him from organizations or individuals with business pending before the Department of Agriculture."
The federal probe focuses on whether Espy accepted gifts from Tyson Foods Inc. the nation's largest poultry producer, as well as from Quaker Oats. Federal investigators also have questioned whether it was appropriate for a female friend of Espy to have accepted gifts from Tyson.
Espy has denied any wrongdoing and yesterday his attorney welcomed getting the process moving.
"We are looking forward to working with the independent counsel and obtaining exoneration of Secretary Espy in short order," said Reid Weingarten, Espy's lead attorney. "I think he is competent, respected lawyer."
Smaltz was appointed by the same three-judge panel that came under fire for selecting conservative Republican Kenneth W. Starr to investigate the Whitewater affair.
Starr's appointment was criticized by Clinton administration supporters who felt the former solicitor general had been installed by conservatives hoping for the toughest possible investigation of the Clintons' Whitewater investment. Criticism intensified when it was disclosed that federal Judge David B. Sentelle, head of the three-judge panel and a staunch conservative, had met with one of the Clinton administration's fiercest Whitewater critics while the appointment was under consideration.
The choice of Smaltz did not draw the same partisan attacks as Starr's appointment despite his established Republican ties. He has donated $500 each to two conservative GOP candidates in California in 1992. His wife, Lois, was appointed a Superior Court judge in 1991 by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who once worked in a firm with Smaltz.
The Espy investigation was started in April by the Justice Department's public integrity section following a referral from the Agriculture Department's inspector general. The probe had been prompted by a news article detailing gifts Espy allegedly accepted from Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas company whose owner, Donald Tyson, has had political ties to President Clinton since his earliest days in public office.
At issue is the 1907 Meat Inspection Act, which bars Agriculture Department employees from accepting "anything of value" from members of the industry they regulate.
Four weeks ago Attorney General Janet Reno requested the panel appoint an independent counsel after a preliminary investigation showed Espy "accepted gifts from Tyson Foods in the course of two separate trips, one to Arkansas in May, 1993, and one in Texas in January, 1994," Reno wrote.
"In total, the gifts amounted to at least several hundred dollars in value." The gifts Espy allegedly accepted were tickets to a Dallas Cowboys football game and a trip on a Tyson corporate jet.
Also under investigation is Espy's alleged acceptance from the Quaker Oats company of tickets to a Chicago Bulls basketball game.
Following Reno's request for the independent counsel, the White House issued new rules forbidding Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees from accepting gifts or trips from companies they regulate even if they later reimburse the companies -- as Espy said he did.
Espy said his ties to Tyson and other food industry officials have not affected his policies, and that he has improved meat and poultry inspection, a point disputed by some analysts and supported by others.
Staff writers Toni Locy and Sharon LaFraniere in Washington and Christine Spolar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company