A Harsh Verdict for Espy's Prosecutor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 1998; Page A01
The jurors who acquitted former agriculture secretary Mike Espy had sharp words yesterday for independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, saying his $17 million corruption case was an outrageous waste of taxpayers' money and an unfair assault on a man they felt was a motivated, effective leader.
"I am so proud of Mr. Espy for standing up and taking this like a man," said juror Anthony Young, who made it a point to shake the former cabinet member's hand after the verdict on Wednesday.
"I hope that we sent a message to these independent counsels," he added. "We, the American people, don't want any more of these trivial, petty cases. Seventeen million dollars for this? This was a travesty. Mr. Espy could have been one of the greatest agriculture secretaries ever," continued Young, 43, a warehouse worker. "This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw. I can't believe Mr. Smaltz ever brought this to trial."
Although some were more measured in their criticisms, four other jurors echoed Young's views, saying they sat for seven weeks in U.S. District Court waiting for evidence to emerge showing that Espy illegally took gifts from businesses and individuals. But time and again, they said, Smaltz failed to demonstrate that Espy had any criminal intent in taking sports tickets and other items and delivered no proof that Espy bestowed any favors. By the trial's end, some jurors said they were wondering why Espy was forced out of office by the White House in 1994 for what seemed a few errors in judgment.
"I tried to really understand what they were getting at," said Adrienne White-Powell, a 20-year-old office clerk. "I don't think it was until the second or third week that I started to realize that this was a bunch of bull."
White-Powell said she came to view Espy, the nation's first African American agriculture secretary, who took office in 1993, as a hard-driven public servant who was "working for the people." Smaltz, meanwhile, seemed to be stretching to make a case.
"He was just the worst," she said. "Even his closing argument -- I was like, 'What is your purpose? What are you there for?' "
Smaltz did not return calls to his office seeking his version of the trial. One of his assistants, William S. Noakes Jr., said "it serves no purpose to second-guess," but acknowledged, "If you draw anything from the jurors' comments, it is that we could have done the case in a clearer, simpler way and done a better job of tying it all up."
Espy was accused of illegally accepting roughly $35,000 in gifts from companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., Sun-Diamond Growers of California, Quaker Oats Co. and others. Jurors said prosecutors failed to show that Espy took anything "for or because of official acts," a key element to proving he violated gratuities laws. They said many of the items seemed to be given to Espy as acts of friendship.
"I had likened the portrait the prosecution was painting to a 'connect-the-dots' picture," said Diane Clayton-Koontz, 37, a mortgage banker and the jury's forewoman. Smaltz "was placing the dots but never connecting them."
She said Smaltz appeared to use tremendous financial resources to bring 38 charges in hopes that one would stick and contended that more control should be placed on independent counsels. "I can't fault him for pursuing the case with the zeal he pursued it, because nobody ever stopped him," she said.
Defense lawyers Ted Wells and Reid H. Weingarten had portrayed Espy as a trailblazer, noting he was the first African American elected to Congress in his native Mississippi since Reconstruction and that he then made history at the Department of Agriculture. Two of Smaltz's witnesses described the USDA as a racist place.
That kind of testimony deeply concerned Smaltz. During the trial, he protested to Judge Ricardo M. Urbina that the defense was injecting race into the trial in what he saw as an appeal to a mostly black jury. Of the 12 people who ultimately decided the case, all but one were black. Defense lawyers denied playing any race cards, and Urbina declined to give the jurors an instruction sought by Smaltz that would have said race was not an issue.
Urbina has ordered the official jury list kept under seal until Thursday so that the jurors could have some breathing space. But some came forward on their own for interviews. They said they were eager to explain race was not a factor and that Smaltz and his legal team have only themselves to blame for the outcome.
"That irritates me -- some people are trying to pin some type of bias on this, and that wasn't the case," Clayton-Koontz said. "There was no one in that deliberation room who said, 'I want to acquit him because I feel sorry for him . . .' And his being black was not the issue. Many jurors were very incensed he had gotten himself into this position because of poor judgment."
"We were there for business," agreed White-Powell.
Another black woman, a retired government worker who asked not to be named, said, "I don't believe that if it had been an all-white or all-Hispanic jury, they would have done anything differently. It's all too ambiguous."
Barbara Bisoni, the only white juror, said Smaltz's case "had holes" and that race never entered into the two days of deliberations. Bisoni, a 25-year-old consultant, said the gaps were compounded by the fact that many of Smaltz's witnesses -- including former USDA officials and former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta -- said Espy had done a good job.
"That shows a certain amount of character," she said. "He actually was doing his job."
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