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  •   Trial of Espy on Corruption Charges is Set

    Espy arrives at the courthouse today. (AP)
    By Bill Miller
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, October 1, 1998; Page A03

    Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, forced from office in 1994 amid allegations that he took gifts from lobbyists and companies he regulated, is scheduled to face trial today on 38 felony counts of corruption.

    A former Mississippi congressman who pushed hard to win the agriculture job from President Clinton, Espy has said he views the trial as a chance to vindicate himself against charges that he took $35,000 in illegal gifts, from sporting tickets to a crystal bowl, and then tried to cover it up. He has accused independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz of overreaching and conducting "an unfair and unprecedented investigation."

    Smaltz, who plans to present much of the case himself, has spent more than $17 million during the past four years investigating Espy and his associates. Although Espy's trial is the climax of Smaltz's controversial tenure, he has laid the groundwork by winning convictions against more than a dozen individuals and corporations. The biggest catch to date is Tyson Foods Inc., which pleaded guilty in December to giving Espy more than $12,000 in illegal gratuities. The Arkansas-based poultry giant agreed to pay a $4 million fine, contribute $2 million to Smaltz's investigation and cooperate in his probe.

    Prosecutors have listed scores of potential witnesses, including former Tyson Foods chairman Don Tyson and his son, John Tyson, the company's vice chairman. Lawyers have told U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina that they expect an eight-week trial.

    Espy, 44, is the first Cabinet-level official to stand trial since former labor secretary Raymond J. Donovan, a Ronald Reagan appointee who was acquitted in 1987 of charges stemming from business dealings that occurred before he took office. He is one of two Cabinet appointees in the Clinton administration to be indicted; the other, former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros, is awaiting trial next year on charges that he lied to the FBI about paying $250,000 in hush money to a former mistress.

    Espy, who served as agriculture secretary from January 1993 until December 1994, is charged with accepting illegal gratuities for himself, his former girlfriend and his relatives, and with violating the Meat Inspection Act of 1907, which prohibits Agriculture Department employees from taking anything of value from companies they are supposed to regulate. He also is accused of failing to reveal the gifts on financial disclosure reports, ordering a low-level employee to help cover up his actions and lying to investigators.

    Espy's lawyers have described the gifts as trivial and are expected to argue that they were given with no strings attached.

    According to a grand jury indictment, Espy began accepting favors from the day he took office. Besides Tyson Foods, he allegedly accepted gifts from Sun-Diamond Growers of California; Oglethorpe Power Corp. of Georgia; Smith Barney Inc., the international banking and securities firm; EOP Group Inc., a political and business consulting firm in Washington; Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago; and Fernbank Inc., a private nonprofit organization that runs a museum in Atlanta.

    The gifts described in the indictment included lodging and entertainment for a lavish birthday party for John Tyson, U.S. Open and Super Bowl tickets as well as luggage, airfare, meals and a $1,200 scholarship for his former girlfriend. Espy also was charged with duping the Agriculture Department into leasing a Jeep Cherokee for him, which he kept in Mississippi and used for personal travel.

    When allegations about his conduct first surfaced in 1994, Espy reimbursed the department and outside companies more than $7,500. His lawyer said he wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Later, under pressure from the White House, he resigned, saying he needed to concentrate on defending himself. Since then, he has worked as a lawyer in his hometown of Jackson, Miss.

    The trial likely will showcase strong personalities on both sides: Espy was a three-term member of Congress and Clinton supporter who became the nation's first black agriculture secretary and the first from the Deep South. Smaltz is a former federal prosecutor and defense lawyer from Los Angeles; he has openly condemned the practices of many Washington lobbyists and public officials.

    All told, Smaltz's office has generated $11.4 million in criminal fines, civil penalties, damages and court costs. However, the prosecutors have suffered some setbacks. Some targets, including Espy's brother, Henry, have been acquitted of charges. Others have had convictions overturned on appeal.

    Smaltz, 61, was initially appointed to investigate whether Espy illegally accepted gifts from organizations and individuals who had business pending before the Agriculture Department. He later broadened his investigation to include other issues, sometimes despite protests from the Justice Department, which complained that he was veering too far from his original mandate.

    Like Kenneth W. Starr, Smaltz has drawn criticism from his many targets, who view his probe as an example of excesses brought on by the independent counsel statute: cases that take too long, cost too much and cast too wide a net. Espy's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, has accused Smaltz of stretching the law.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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