Poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. pleaded guilty yesterday to giving former agriculture secretary Mike Espy $12,000 in illegal gratuities and consented to pay $6 million in fines and costs. Tyson officials agreed to testify at Espy's upcoming trial.

Tyson Foods admitted to lavishing gifts on Espy -- including football tickets, airline trips, meals and scholarship money for his girlfriend -- at a time when his department was considering action on several matters affecting the company's business, including safe handling instructions on poultry packaging.

The plea agreement, obtained by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, was approved by Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in U.S. District Court here. To avoid a trial, Tyson Foods said it will pay $4 million in fines and $2 million toward the cost of the investigation.

Company chairman Don Tyson and his son John Tyson were granted immunity from prosecution as part of the agreement. In addition, the company said it would comply with ethics requirements in dealing with federal officials, and as a result will not be subjected to a potentially costly ban on doing business with the Agriculture Department and Department of Defense.

Smaltz has battled lawyers in the Justice Department who contended he has ranged too far afield from his original mission of investigating gratuities to Espy. Some Democrats have charged that three years and $8.5 million is too much time and money devoted to investigating petty corruption.

But Smaltz has nevertheless racked up a substantial tally of convictions and penalties. With yesterday's plea, his investigation has so far resulted in criminal convictions of seven individuals, five corporations and a law firm. Three people have been cleared and three cases -- including the one against Espy -- are pending. With the Tyson plea, Smaltz has won a total of $10.5 million in fines and penalties.

"The gravamen of this investigation from its inception, has been unlawful gift-giving by prohibited corporate sources to a sitting member of the Cabinet. Such conduct must continue to invite outrage, never passivity, from those who are regulated, the public and our lawmakers. . . . " said Smaltz in a statement. "Our government is a government of all the people and not just the privileged few who seek to buy their way into regulatory grace."

The company said in a statement: "Tyson looks forward to having this long, costly, distracting matter behind us."

The plea agreement represents an embarrassment to an administration already beset by scandals and investigations. Earlier this month, another former Clinton administration Cabinet official, former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, was indicted on charges he lied to the FBI about payments to an ex-mistress.

Espy's chief of staff, Ronald H. Blackley, was convicted Dec. 1 of lying to authorities about receiving $22,000 from Mississippi agribusinesses seeking subsidies from his department. Smaltz complained publicly before a congressional panel this month that the Justice Department tried to prevent his office from bringing that case.

The White House had no comment on the Tyson plea yesterday. Officials of the company, a major employer in Arkansas, have long-standing ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. When Don and John Tyson appeared in court yesterday, they were accompanied by James Blair, Tyson's corporate counsel and a close friend of the Clintons who advised Hillary Clinton in 1978 on commodities trades that earned her $100,000.

Espy, 44, a former Mississippi congressman, is accused of soliciting $35,458 worth of gifts from companies he regulated. One of those companies, fruit and nut grower Sun-Diamond, has appealed its conviction on charges it illegally bestowed gifts on Espy, including an all-expense-paid trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York for Espy and his girlfriend. Lawyers for Espy and Sun-Diamond maintain the gifts were not barred under the law because they were given by longtime friends of Espy.

A spokesman for Smaltz said Don Tyson may be called to testify against Espy at his corruption trial in March.

Such testimony could represent a significant blow to Espy's defense. His lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said in a statement that Tyson Foods' guilty plea "does not implicate Mike Espy, and Mr. Espy is confident that he will be fully vindicated on the merits at trial."

"Corporations often choose to resolve criminal investigations through plea agreements for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence," said Weingarten.

Tyson officials also agreed to cooperate in other cases, including the trial of company lobbyist Jack Williams now scheduled for February, and in the investigation of Tyson Foods "Vice President X," an official whose identity is under seal.

The company identified the official as its spokesman, Archie Schaffer. Tyson said it believes neither man did anything wrong.

Tyson, of Springdale, Ark., is a publicly held company and the largest producer of poultry in the world. It has $200 million in yearly sales in programs managed by the Agriculture Department.

According to court papers filed yesterday, during the period it was showering gifts on Espy, Tyson Foods was urging USDA to go slow on imposing new meat and poultry handling instructions. Smaltz's office said prompt imposition of the new rule would have cost Tyson Foods $30 million. In the end, a court blocked enforcement of the rule. CAPTION: STATUS OF THE SMALTZ INVESTIGATION Independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz's investigation into the activities of former agriculture secretary Mike Espy has yielded convictions of seven people and six businesses. Three people have been cleared, and a few cases are still pending. Where the prosecutions stand: Ronald H. Blackley Mike Espy's former chief of staff found guilty of making false statements concealing money he received from prohibited sources. Richard Douglas Former Sun-Diamond official found guilty of giving Mike Espy and others illegal gratuities. Hung jury on gratuity to Espy's girlfriend. Acquitted of mail fraud and election violations relating to illegal campaign contributions. Awaits trial on charges of wire fraud resulting from false statements on mortgage application. Henry Espy Mike Espy's brother acquitted of conspiring to make false statements to extend repayment deadline of a loan and to conceal illegal contribution. Mike Espy Awaits trial on charges he accepted illegal gratuities and gifts and made false statements. Norris J. Faust Jr. Farm Service Agency official acquitted of lying to a grand jury regarding a change in USDA regulations. Alvarez Ferrouillet Chairman of Henry Espy campaign was found guilty of interstate transportation of stolen property, money laundering and false statements regarding illegal contribution to Henry Espy's congressional campaign. He and his firms, Municipal Healthcare Cooperative and Ferrouillet & Ferrouillet, were found guilty of making false statements to extend repayment deadline of a loan and to conceal illegal contribution. Ferrouillet was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $10,000. James H. Lake Lobbyist pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Henry Espy's campaign. Sentencing set for Jan. 16. Jack L. Williams Tyson Foods lobbyist found guilty of making false statements concealing knowledge of gratuities, a scholarship for Mike Espy's girlfriend, and the nature of his relationship with Espy and his girlfriend. Motion granted for new trial. Crop Growers Corp., John J. Hemmingson, Gary A. Black The crop insurance firm pleaded no contest to charges it made Illegal contributions to Henry Espy's campaign and falsified records regarding contribution; fined $2 million. The two executives were acquitted of conspiracy to defraud the FEC regarding illegal campaign contributions. Hemmingson was found guilty of interstate transportation of stolen property regarding illegal campaign contribution, convicted of two counts of money laundering and acquitted of one. Sentenced to one year in prison, $30,000 fine and $20,000 restitution. 5M Farming Enterprises, Brook Mitchell Sr., Brook Mitchell Jr. The farming corporation and Mitchell Sr. pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining USDA subsidies. Mitchell Jr. awaits trial on the same charges. Smith Barney Inc. Found liable for improperly giving Mike Espy Super Bowl tickets. Fined $1.05 million. Sun-Diamond Growers of California Found guilty of giving Espy illegal gratuities and making illegal contributions to Henry Espy campaign. Acquitted of providing illegal gratuity to Mike Espy's girlfriend. Fined $1.5 million and given five years probation. Tyson Foods Inc. Pleaded guilty to giving Mike Espy illegal gratuities. Fined $4 million, plus $2 million toward cost of investigation. SOURCE: Office of independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz