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  •   Judge Dismisses Part Of Espy Gifts Case

    By Bill Miller
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page A06

    A federal judge yesterday dismissed part of the corruption case against former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, ruling that prosecutors had failed to show criminal conduct in his acceptance of Super Bowl tickets and a Waterford crystal bowl from two corporations that had business dealings with USDA.

    Although U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina threw out eight charges, he kept 30 counts intact, covering roughly $33,000 in other gifts that prosecutors say Espy illegally received. Those counts are the foundation of independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz's case, and will go to a jury after closing arguments on Monday.

    "The framework of this case is very much in place," said William S. Noakes Jr., an associate independent counsel. "The jury will have opportunity to decide the case based on what they've heard throughout the trial."

    Espy and his lawyers declined to comment on Urbina's ruling.

    A former House member from Mississippi who pushed hard to win the agriculture job in 1993 from President Clinton, Espy will not testify in the trial. His lawyers decided not to call any of their witnesses, hoping they already have poked enough holes in Smaltz's case to win an acquittal.

    Defense lawyers Ted Wells and Reid H. Weingarten asked Urbina to dismiss all 38 charges, arguing in court papers that Smaltz had failed to prove that Espy took luggage, sports tickets, artwork and other items knowing that the givers were trying to influence his conduct. They contended that the gifts were given to Espy as harmless acts of friendship, not as part of a criminal scheme, and said Espy made all USDA decisions based on the merits.

    But Smaltz's legal team countered in court papers that the jury should decide Espy's intent, contending they presented a "substantial chronicle of his wrongdoing" during a seven-week trial. In his ruling yesterday, Urbina said the law requires him to view the evidence in "the light most favorable to the government" when deciding which charges should reach the jury.

    The charges dismissed yesterday included several counts stemming from Espy's receipt of four tickets to the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta. The tickets came from Fernbank Inc., a nonprofit corporation that had a USDA contract to promote the 50th anniversary of Smokey Bear. Fernbank officials said they gave Espy the tickets because he was supposed to accompany a costumed Smokey onto the Super Bowl field at halftime in what they thought would be a public relations triumph. The event fell through, however, and Smokey was honored instead with a 20-second public service announcement on the stadium's scoreboard.

    Urbina said prosecutors failed to show that Espy set out to break the law when he took the tickets. The Atlanta visit was cleared by other USDA officials. When questions were raised, Espy paid Fernbank $700 for the seats.

    The other dismissed counts included gratuities charges involving an $873 crystal bowl that prosecutors said came from Sun-Diamond Growers of California and a $1,200 scholarship that the Tyson Foundation, an arm of Tyson Foods Inc., awarded to Espy's then-girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey. Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta testified that Dempsey's scholarship created an appearance of impropriety and led to his demand that Espy resign in 1994.

    But the most serious allegations involve the other charges that the judge left intact, covering more gifts from Tyson Foods, Sun-Diamond and other companies. The remaining counts include three charges that Espy violated the Meat Inspection Act by taking illegal gratuities. Those charges carry mandatory prison terms of one year each. The 27 other charges that remain could bring prison or probation.

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