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  •   The Promise and the Puzzle of Mike Espy

    By Sharon LaFraniere and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, September 28, 1994; Page A01

    The day after he went on "60 Minutes" to discuss Gennifer Flowers's allegations, presidential candidate Bill Clinton flew to Jackson, Miss., for a fund-raiser. His campaign aides worried that a lukewarm reception there would be seen as a sign Clinton was finished.

    But Mike Espy was waiting for the candidate with open arms and 250 enthusiastic supporters. Espy was there, too, when Jesse L. Jackson criticized Clinton for denouncing a rap singer's racially tinged lyrics. And whenever Clinton traveled to "a black event," according to chief campaign strategist James Carville, Espy was one of two people Carville would call.

    Clinton rewarded the young three-term Democratic congressman, who then had little hope of even a subcommittee chairmanship, by making him the first African American and the first son of the Deep South to be named agriculture secretary. Now the question is whether Espy's relationship with Clinton is strong enough to save him from a string of ethical missteps, including wrongly billed expenses, questionable government trips and the acceptance of gifts from meat and poultry producers -- a matter now under investigation by an independent counsel.

    The puzzle of Espy is how someone with so much political savvy and promise could risk his career for such seemingly minor perks as football tickets and airplane rides. Depending on who one talks to, he is either a manager so busy he can't keep track of his affairs, a former congressman who forgot to shed his congressional habits, or a cavalier official who knew the rules but brushed aside aides who pointed out transgressions.

    In recent months, Espy has repaid more than $7,500 to the government or to outside firms, saying he was determined to clear up even the appearance of impropriety. Repayment does not exonerate someone who breaks the law, independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz said in a recent interview, but those familiar with Espy's troubles say losing his job is a bigger threat than any criminal charge.

    Espy's critics say he was well-briefed on the ethics rules for Cabinet members after he was appointed, and has only himself to blame for taking freebies like a government-leased vehicle that he kept at his hometown airport in Jackson, Miss., and sometimes used for personal reasons.

    Supporters say Espy, who maintains an almost frenetic pace, wrongly assumed that his staff would keep up with who should pay for what and make sure he addressed any problems. "His weakness is he is somewhat disorganized," said his attorney, Reid Weingarten. "He never sat down and organized his office."

    Lawyers from the White House counsel's office met with Weingarten last week, and Espy's friends are anxiously awaiting the results of a White House review of Espy's conduct. Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff, said Friday that Clinton has confidence in Espy. But if Espy should be forced to resign, Bill Minor, a syndicated columnist steeped in Mississippi politics, said his political career may be over because the agriculture job "took him out of the line he was on" for higher office in Mississippi.

    Until now, Espy has been on a remarkable roll. At 32, he was elected Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction, representing a new generation of southern black leaders who matured after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

    His district was racially balanced, poor, rural and conservative. In the Congressional Black Caucus, Espy's membership in the National Rifle Association and support for the death penalty made him the odd man out. His receptiveness to issues like welfare reform also set him apart, according to Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

    Once Clinton was elected, Espy was eager to shed his low profile in the House for the challenges of the Agriculture Department, a dinosaur of agencies heavily influenced by special interest groups. He campaigned hard for the secretary's post. At a 1992 dinner, Espy hastily scribbled down 10 reasons why he should be agriculture secretary on the back of an envelope and passed it to the president-elect.

    Although Clinton had known Espy for years through the politically moderate DLC and the Mississippi Delta Commission, Espy's appointment as agriculture secretary was something of a gamble. He had no hands-on experience as a farmer; the family business was a chain of black funeral homes started by his well-known grandfather. He had no links to agribusiness in the Midwest or far West, the hubs of U.S. agriculture.

    On the other hand, as a congressman from a rural area in the poorest district of the nation's poorest state, Espy had unprecedented experience with the travails of the rural poor and the need for development in forgotten communities. His appointment was announced on Christmas Eve, a month after he turned 39.

    The soft-spoken Mississippian seems almost shy one-on-one, but aides describe him as a hard-charging boss who is impatient for action. With crowds, any reserve falls away. His rousing speeches sometimes bring even GOP crowds out of their seats.

    His first few months vividly illustrated the hallmarks of his tenure: his role as a barrier-breaker, his ambitious agenda, his consumer bent, his efforts to cut a bloated work force and reform antiquated programs. Also evident were the weaknesses: his distance from career staff members, certain decisions that favored farmers over taxpayers, difficulties in filling political jobs and doubts about his sensitivity to ethical questions.

    During his first week on the job, Espy found a department archivist to lead him to the vault, where he eventually located a thin file that recorded his father's reports as the department's "Negro county agent" in Crittenden County, Ark., 56 years ago. Espy worked his discovery into his speeches, a quiet reminder of how far he has come. In memos to career executives -- mostly white men -- he emphasized that they would be judged in part on their efforts to hire and promote qualified minorities and women.

    Then Espy got a master key and went through the department's headquarters, noting all the costly telephone lines running to unused offices. His search for administrative savings eventually led him to trim the department's work force of 113,000 by about 3,600, mainly through buyouts. He also embraced a plan -- first drafted by the Bush administration and now stalled in Congress -- to close roughly 1,100 unneeded field offices, consolidate the department's 42 agencies and streamline services.

    In his second week, Espy flew to Olympia, Wash., to address deaths and illnesses traced to contaminated meat at Jack in the Box restaurants. The outbreak convinced him to fight for more meat and poultry inspectors and better inspection methods, a harbinger of other pro-consumer positions he took on nutrition issues.

    The Olympia trip also foreshadowed his role as Johnny-on-the-spot Cabinet member. He later boated through flood-ravaged Midwest farms, flew to Japan to negotiate on rice imports and jetted to the Southwest to console families of dead Forest Service workers, even though he wanted to spend time with his children that weekend. Aides say he runs the department partly from the airport, and he jokes that his theme song should be "On the Road Again."

    At an early retreat, he asked aides to contemplate broad changes, and he advocated a field full of them, including more nutritious school lunches and much-needed crop insurance reforms, almost certain to win congressional approval this year.

    "He took on a fairly large agenda, fairly quickly. They needed that," said John Harman, a farm policy expert with the General Accounting Office.

    Espy was particularly effective canvassing Capitol Hill to twist arms and tout the virtues of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to Rep. E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and one of NAFTA's biggest supporters. "Espy had a major impact," de la Garza said.

    But Espy also began his tenure by naming Ronald Blackley, a Hill aide, as chief of staff, despite concerns Blackley may have used his House post for his own financial advantage. The agency's inspector general is investigating whether as chief of staff Blackley, who was demoted this spring, helped former clients of his consulting firm win back subsidy payments.

    Espy also banned foreclosures by the Farmers Home Administration, taking away the department's only means to collect nearly $5 billion in bad loans. The 11-month suspension pleased farm groups and showed that Espy, like his predecessors, would sometimes champion farmers' interests -- even at taxpayers' expense.

    Later Espy gave in to pressure from corn and wheat farmers for bigger government loans, raising the specter of heavier burdens to taxpayers should commodity prices fall.

    And because he and the USDA were largely absent from the 1993 budget reconciliation debate, the agriculture committees were left to follow their own instincts. In the end, Congress ignored the administration's desire to eliminate subsidies to some rich farmers. "We expected the administration to weigh in at some point," said one House agriculture expert, "but they never did."

    Although Espy's top aides are fiercely loyal, his relationship with career staff got off to a rocky start and remains uneasy. Some top career officials say they have had no contact with Espy, whose second-floor office, with its glassed-in reception area, is known as "the cage."

    Early on, Espy suggested that department bonuses sometimes seemed more tied to cronyism than merit -- remarks that some officials said hurt more than Espy's decision to suspend the awards and save $35 million.

    Then this year Espy further strained relations inside the department by suggesting that officials of the Food Safety and Inspection Service reacted complacently to the outbreak of disease from contaminated meat. "I got the impression they knew about these deaths and they weren't excited. They considered the deaths acceptable," Espy said.

    An anguished career official later told her staff: "I honestly cannot imagine how the secretary ever walked away with the impression ... that we just accepted the fact that people died." Espy later apologized for any pain his comments may have caused.

    To some, however, the incident was one more example of Espy's biggest problem -- his failure to realize how others would perceive him, and the consequences that might follow.

    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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