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  •   Prosecutor: Espy Aware of Ethics Breach

    Mike Espy, right, arrives Thursday at the courthouse in Washington. (AP)

    By Bill Miller
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 2, 1998; Page A08

    Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy knew he wasn't supposed to accept plane rides, sporting tickets and other gifts from lobbyists, independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz said in opening arguments yesterday at Espy's trial. And yet he did so repeatedly, Smaltz charged, disdaining ethics laws as "a bunch of junk."

    Smaltz's comments started a day of rhetorical jabs at the start of Espy's trial on 38 felony charges of corruption in U.S. District Court here, prompting a rebuttal by defense lawyer Ted Wells, who accused prosecutors of stretching the truth to build an unfair case. Although Espy made mistakes, Wells said, he took gifts out of friendship and not to grant favors. "He is not a crook," Wells repeatedly declared.

    Espy, 44, who was President Clinton's first secretary of agriculture, listened attentively at the defense table as Smaltz and Wells spent much of the day giving jurors a preview of a trial expected to last eight weeks. So many witnesses will be called in the proceedings that U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina is taking the unusual step of putting their names and pictures in a special notebook so jurors can recall everyone.

    Yesterday, however, was a day for the lawyers to showcase their oratorical skills.

    "Mr. Espy wasn't really concerned about his ethical responsibilities," said Smaltz, whose $17.4 million investigation into Espy's dealings has led to more than a dozen convictions of companies and individuals. To the contrary, Smaltz said, Espy openly derided them as junk in a conversation early in his tenure with a fellow high-level Clinton administration official.

    Smaltz did not name the official. However, others familiar with Smaltz's investigation identified the person as Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Smaltz plans to call her as a witness, possibly today.

    In his opening statement, Smaltz walked through a detailed account of Espy's gift-taking, from his appointment as secretary in January 1993 until his forced resignation in December 1994.

    Chart after chart -- flashed on monitors for the jurors to see -- listed items from such companies as Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas-based poultry giant; Sun-Diamond Growers of California, one of the nation's largest agricultural cooperatives; and Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago. Some gifts went to Espy's former girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey, Smaltz said, including a $1,200 scholarship from Tyson Foods and $3,200 in cash from a Sun-Diamond lobbyist.

    All told, Espy is accused of accepting more than $35,000 in gifts from individuals and businesses he was supposed to be regulating, failing to reveal the items as required on annual financial disclosure reports, and then lying to investigators about them. But he is not charged with doing anything in return, and both sides agree that some of his decisions as agriculture secretary went against the gift-giving parties.

    It is illegal for public officials to accept gifts as a reward for a government act or in anticipation of one, although officials are allowed to accept gifts from friends. Espy's motivations in taking the gifts -- which included tickets to professional basketball and football games and the U.S. Open tennis tournament -- were debated at length by attorneys yesterday.

    Smaltz said Espy got gifts "because he was the secretary of agriculture, had made or could be making decisions that could have an impact on businesses. Mr. Espy knew who these people were who were giving gifts to him and why."

    Smaltz said that although Espy was making $148,000 a year, he was always complaining about being short of money. His enthusiasm for sports and willingness to take gifts made him "easy pickings . . . for companies that wanted to slip him something special," the independent counsel argued.

    Wells maintained that there was nothing sinister about Espy's actions. He said they involved friendship, not business, and insisted that Espy "made every decision on the merits. He called it straight down the middle."

    Although Espy may have made "mistakes" on paperwork, Wells said, his oversights were not a crime. He said that Espy was running a massive department, which at the time had a $60 billion annual budget, and was engaged in such policy issues as attempting to reorganize the USDA, pushing for stricter standards on food safety and handling a host of international trade issues.

    "The key issue in this case -- what was Mike Espy's state of mind?" Wells said, noting that the former congressman from Mississippi was proud to be making history as the first African American to head the department. "He did not believe he was doing anything wrong. Maybe he should have had more sensitivity, but he was dealing with all that other stuff."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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