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  •   Espy Acquitted in Gifts Case

    Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy pauses outside federal court in Washington on Nov. 5. (AP)
    By Bill Miller
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A01

    Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, forced out of office in 1994 by allegations that he improperly took gifts from businesses and lobbyists, was acquitted yesterday of 30 corruption charges brought against him by an independent counsel whom Espy likened to a "schoolyard bully."

    Espy pumped his fist in jubilation as the jury forewoman announced the verdicts in U.S. District Court. Thirty times she looked at the verdict form and declared "not guilty" as independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz and his team of lawyers sat in silence at the prosecution table.

    As the litany continued, Espy turned to his lawyers and whispered, "I knew it, I knew it."

    Moments later, outside the courthouse, Espy called the acquittal a long-sought vindication. He declared it a repudiation of Smaltz, who spent more than four years and $17 million on a wide-ranging investigation, and said his case illustrated flaws in the independent counsel law that should be reformed.

    "He's not unlike any other schoolyard bully," Espy said of Smaltz, one of seven independent counsels appointed to investigate the conduct of officials in the Clinton administration, and the first to bring one to trial. "You have to stand up to him. You have to let him know you're not going to back down, and sooner or later it's going to be okay."

    In a statement issued by the White House, President Clinton said of Espy: "I am heartened that he has, as he said, emerged from this ordeal stronger. I hope that as he moves forward he will continue his notable record of service to the country."

    Smaltz was offering no apologies, saying his office had won 15 other convictions and generated $11 million in fines. He said Espy's indictment last year on charges that he illegally took $35,000 in gifts sent a strong public message, adding, "The actual indictment of a public official may in fact be as great a deterrent as a conviction of that official."

    "Public service is a public trust," Smaltz said. "Officials must neither solicit nor accept gifts from any entities that they regulate. The appearance of impropriety can be as damning as bribery is to public confidence."

    The jurors, seven men and five women, left quickly after the verdicts were read, offering no public comment. Their decision came after nine hours of deliberations, a fairly quick turnaround for a case that took seven grueling weeks to try and entailed 70 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. Last week, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina dismissed eight other charges.

    Once viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, Espy took office in January 1993 as President Clinton's first agriculture secretary. He made history as the first African American to hold the spot. He also was the first USDA secretary from the Deep South and the youngest on the job -- 39 when he started, after three terms as a Mississippi congressman.

    After months of media scrutiny, Espy announced his resignation in October 1994 under pressure from the White House. The move came within weeks after Smaltz was appointed to investigate his acceptance of gifts from companies and lobbyists who fell under USDA regulations.

    Although Espy left office in December 1994 and returned to Mississippi, Smaltz kept up the probe, winning Espy's indictment last year.

    The jury acquitted Espy, 45, of illegally taking tickets to sporting events and other benefits from Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas-based poultry giant; Sun-Diamond Growers of California, a large fruit and nut cooperative; Oglethorpe Power Corp. of Georgia; Smith Barney Inc., the international banking and securities firm; EOP Group Inc., a political and business consulting firm in Washington; and Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago. Jurors also acquitted him of charges that he lied to investigators and on financial disclosure forms.

    Although Smaltz showed Espy received the gifts, he failed to demonstrate that Espy did anything in return for them. The law permits officials to receive gifts out of friendship or a desire to establish warm feelings, so long as the items are not "for or because of official acts."

    Defense lawyers said many of the items came from longtime friends and others were given as harmless acts of hospitality. Day after day, Smaltz's own witnesses described Espy as a good leader who made all decisions on their merits.

    Defense lawyers Reid H. Weingarten and Ted Wells chose not to present a defense after Smaltz rested his case, contending that prosecutors had not inflicted any damage.

    Despite Smaltz's earlier successes -- including a guilty plea from Tyson Foods, which agreed to pay a $4 million fine and contribute $2 million to the independent counsel's investigation -- Espy was his primary target.

    The case becomes one of only a handful of acquittals arising from the investigation. Espy's brother, Henry, who was acquitted of criminal charges stemming from contributions he received during his own congressional campaign, was in court yesterday.

    The trial had a racial undercurrent, with two witnesses -- lobbyists Richard Douglas and Michael O'Bannon -- saying they were concerned about their friend, Espy, because they viewed USDA as a racist bureaucracy. Douglas and O'Bannon, who are black, said they expected Espy to be held to higher standards than his white predecessors.

    Smaltz tried to offset that testimony by telling the mostly black jury that race was not an issue.

    In response to suggestions that a majority black jury in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic was more likely to acquit Espy, Wells said, "I would like to think Mike Espy would have gotten off anyplace, because he didn't do anything."

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