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  • Key stories about the Espy probe.

  •   In Closing, Espy Lawyer Calls Charges 'Garbage'

    Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy pauses outside federal court in Washington on Nov. 5. (AP)
    By Bill Miller
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 1, 1998; Page A04

    The seven-week trial of former agriculture secretary Mike Espy came to a close yesterday with a rhetorical assault on independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz by Espy's defense lawyer, who derided the corruption case as "a joke" and "a bunch of garbage."

    With a jury set to begin deliberations today on the charges that Espy illegally took gifts from lobbyists and companies he regulated, his lawyer urged acquittal, saying, "There is an insanity to these allegations."

    In his own closing statement, Smaltz, who has spent more than four years and $17 million investigating Espy's dealings, emphasized his acceptance of about $33,000 in sports tickets, luggage and other gifts from companies that had an interest in his decisions.

    "This case is not about one mistake, nor is it about two mistakes or even three mistakes," Smaltz said. "There were about 17 or 18 instances in a 16-month period in which the secretary of agriculture took things of value from the companies he regulated."

    Espy, a former House member from Mississippi who became President Clinton's first agriculture secretary in January 1993, was forced to resign less than two years later amid questions about the gifts. Smaltz has won convictions against more than a dozen individuals and corporations, generating more than $11 million in criminal fines. From the start, Espy was his chief target, and Smaltz handled much of the case himself. Espy, who turned 45 yesterday, did not testify during the trial and the defense called no witnesses.

    Defense lawyer Ted Wells told the jury yesterday that Smaltz had disguised a weak case by indicting Espy on an array of corruption charges. "They hope maybe one of you will say, 'Thirty counts -- he must have done something,' " Wells said. "You give them nothing. Each one of those counts brands that man over there a felon for the rest of his life."

    Smaltz contends that Espy illegally took gifts from Tyson Foods Inc., Sun-Diamond Growers of California, and others. According to Smaltz, Espy had his hand out from the start, taking tickets for an inaugural party from Tyson Foods. Later, Smaltz said, Tyson executives invited Espy and his former girlfriend to a party in Arkansas that featured B.B. King and other musicians, and entertained them in their skybox for a Dallas Cowboys playoff game.

    After hearing more than 70 witnesses, the jury in U.S. District Court here now must determine whether Espy took the gifts "for or because of an official act," knowing the givers wanted to influence him. Judge Ricardo M. Urbina told jurors that the key is what was in Espy's mind, not the minds of the givers.

    That issue was fiercely debated in nearly five hours of closing arguments.

    "Sun-Diamond wanted access," Smaltz said, disputing the defense's contention that more than $12,000 in gifts could be explained by Espy's friendship with Richard Douglas, a company executive. "It was willing to pay for it."

    Espy had to know the gifts were wrong, Smaltz said. Citing the items from Tyson Foods, he declared, "Why else fly him, treat him, wine and dine him -- a person who is a virtual stranger -- if it is not an attempt to influence him and hope that at some future time Tyson would receive favorable treatment?"

    Complicating Smaltz's case is the fact that his own witnesses -- the company executives as well as past and present USDA officials -- testified that Espy appeared to show no favoritism and made decisions on the merits.

    Wells keyed much of his defense on that record and said any mistakes Espy made were oversights. He noted that Espy has admitted publicly that he "may have been inattentive to the appearance of impropriety," and said that Espy's resignation was punishment enough.

    During opening statements in the trial, Wells told the mostly black jury that Espy encountered enemies at USDA because he was the first African American agriculture secretary and pushed for management changes. It was Smaltz who cautiously raised the issue yesterday. Although some witnesses described the USDA as a "racist department," Smaltz said, "You must decide this case on the facts. It cannot be decided on sympathy, nor politics, nor race."

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