Former Agriculture Secretary Espy Indicted
White House declines to comment on former Cabinet member's legal troubles
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Aug. 27) -- Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has been indicted by a federal grand jury on 39 counts of illegally accepting gifts and favors while a member of the Clinton cabinet, and trying to cover up those activities.
A grand jury in Washington has charged Espy with accepting gifts, trips and favors worth more than $35,000 from major businesses working with the Agriculture Department while he headed the agency in 1993 and 1994. He was also charged with lying to prosecutors and instructing an Agriculture Department employee to tamper with a document sought by investigators.
Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz, who led the investigation into Espy's conduct, said at a press conference this afternoon, "The indictment charged Espy with violation of a variety of criminal statues including violation of his duty to provide honest services to the American public, by taking over $35,000 in things of value for the benefit of himself, his girlfriend or his family from persons, firms and entities having business before the United States Department of Agriculture."
The rise and fall of Mike Espy
A former congressman from Mississippi, Espy was President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary. He resigned from the post in December 1994, three months after the start of the independent counsel's probe.
While a cabinet member, investigators believe that Espy accepted gifts of airfare, luggage, sports tickets and cash gratuities that benefitted himself, his family members or his former girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey.
The sources of most of the gifts were the Arkansas-based chicken-processing giant Tyson Foods and Sun Diamond Growers of California, a cooperative that produces raisins, prunes and other dried fruits. Both companies have also been targets of Smaltz's investigation.
So far, Espy has denied all charges of wrongdoing. If convicted on all counts he faces a maximum term of more than 100 years in prison. Espy is expected to be arraigned in federal court in Washington, D.C., sometime in the next 10 days.
The Clinton Administration had no comment on Espy's indictment, saying only it is a "judicial process." Smaltz declined to comment when asked if the White House has been cooperative in the probe.
Smaltz's $9.2 million investigation
Smaltz was appointed in 1994 to investigate whether Espy broke the law by accepting tickets to a Dallas Cowboys playoff game and $1,009 in airfare for himself and Dempsey from a lobbyist for Tyson Foods Inc.
Critics of Smaltz have charged that his probe has produced few results despite having dragged on nearly three years. But Smaltz insisted that he would continue as long as necessary. "How much longer? Until we can complete our investigation and the indictment process, if any more indictments are coming down," he told reporters.
The cost of Smaltz's investigation, from the start of the probe in fiscal year 1994 through March 31, 1997, has been $9,216,000.
Ongoing investigations uncover more gifts
Both Don Tyson and John Tyson of Tyson Foods have been granted immunity in the investigation of Espy, CNN has learned. Don Tyson is senior chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest poultry producers. John Tyson is vice chairman of the board. Dempsey has also been given immunity.
Sources close to the investigation say prosecutors from Smaltz's office granted the immunity to obtain grand jury testimony from the Tysons.
In March, Jack Williams, a lobbyist for Tyson, was convicted of lying about providing the football and airline tickets that prompted the initial investigation. A judge has since overturned the verdict and Williams faces a new trial.
Last May, Sun Diamond was fined $1.5 million for giving Espy $6,000 in illegal gratuities and for donating $4,000 to the failed congressional campaign of Espy's brother, Henry Espy.
Richard Douglas, a lobbyist for the cooperative, is also set to stand trial. He is charged with giving illegal gifts to Espy including a $2,427 set of luggage and a $4,590 trip to the 1993 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City for Espy and Dempsey.
Another charge concerns a $1,200 scholarship Espy's then-girlfriend Dempsey, obtained through the offices of Tyson Food in Arkansas.
Other companies from which Espy is charged with taking gifts are Smith Barney; Oglethorpe Power Corporation, a Georgia electrical power cooperative; and the EOP Group, a Washington, D.C., political and business consulting company. The Quaker Oats corporation is also alleged to have given gratuities to Espy.
In a statement, Espy's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten said, "Never has so much been made of so little. In an effort to justify three years and countless millions spent on this investigation, the special prosecutor has stretched criminal statutes beyond recognition and taken trivial, personal and entirely benign activities and attempted to distort them into criminal acts. These efforts will ultimately prove unavailing and we look forward to going to court and clearing Mike Espy's good name."
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