A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated the conviction of a Tyson Foods Inc. executive accused of providing an illegal gratuity to then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, ruling that a trial judge had erred in tossing out the charge for lack of evidence.

By a 2 to 1 vote, a panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there was ample evidence to support a jury's June 1998 conviction of Archibald L. Schaffer III for violating an anti-corruption provision of the Meat Inspection Act involving gifts to public officials. The panel sent the case back to U.S. District Judge James Robertson for sentencing.

Schaffer, director of government and media relations for the Arkansas-based poultry giant, now faces the prospect of up to three years in prison, with the law calling for a minimum sentence of one year. Defense lawyer William H. Jeffress Jr. said he planned to ask the full appellate court to review the case.

In a statement, Schaffer said he remained "absolutely convinced that I am innocent of any offense." He predicted he will ultimately prevail.

The ruling is a victory for independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, who has netted more than a dozen convictions in his investigation of Espy but lost his biggest case when a jury acquitted Espy last December of illegally accepting $35,000 in gifts from companies he was supposed to be regulating.

During a trial last summer, prosecutors contended that Schaffer and Jack Williams, Tyson's chief Washington lobbyist, wooed Espy with gifts in hopes of winning favorable treatment on major issues. Even before the case went to the jury, Judge Robertson dismissed charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud.

Williams was acquitted by the jury of all gratuities charges but was convicted of making false statements to investigators from the Agriculture Department inspector general's office and the FBI. He was ultimately fined $5,000.

The jury convicted Schaffer of two counts of providing Espy with illegal gratuities, one involving $6,000 worth of tickets provided for a January 1993 presidential inaugural dinner, and the other stemming from $2,500 worth of air transportation to attend a Tyson family birthday party in Arkansas. Schaffer was acquitted of a third gratuities count involving the birthday celebration itself.

In overturning the jury's guilty verdicts against Schaffer, Robertson said the prosecution failed to tie the favors to any official acts on Espy's part.

Smaltz's office appealed the decision, contending that Tyson Foods wanted Espy's help in derailing Agriculture Department regulations meant to promote the safe handling of meat and poultry products.

The three-judge panel agreed that Robertson acted appropriately in dismissing the gratuities charge stemming from the inaugural dinner, saying the issues cited by Smaltz did not emerge until later. But by a 2 to 1 vote, the judges said that Robertson erred in dismissing the count involving the May 1993 party. By then, the issues were under discussion, the majority said.

Judge Patricia M. Wald was joined in the majority opinion by Laurence H. Silberman. Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented.

Tyson Foods pleaded guilty to one illegal gratuity count in December 1997 and was fined $4 million and ordered to pay an additional $2 million for the costs of Smaltz's inquiry. In return for the plea, the company was permitted to keep doing $200 million in annual business with the government.