Atty. Gen. Janet Reno could ask as soon as this week for the appointment of an independent counsel to complete the stalemated investigation into whether Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy improperly accepted gifts from a prominent Arkansas poultry producer, Justice Department sources said Sunday.
Justice Department investigators concluded weeks ago that Espy's acceptance of travel, lodging and professional football tickets from Don Tyson, the head of Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest chicken producer, constituted a technical violation of the Meat Inspection Act of 1907. That law prohibits meat regulators from accepting gifts and carries a one-year prison term.
Critics have alleged that those gifts may also be related to the Agriculture Department's decision to delay tougher inspection procedures for the poultry industry.
However, Justice Department officials said appointment of an independent counsel would not suggest that new and more damaging facts about Espy had come to light. Rather, it would provide a means of resolving a dispute between law enforcement authorities concerning the Espy case.
High-level Justice Department officials pressed to close the case this spring, saying investigators had found insufficient evidence that Espy's actions violated the law. But FBI officials said they believed that they had not yet exhausted all avenues of inquiry in the investigation.
After Congress in June renewed the law creating the office of independent counsel, Justice Department officials concluded that they effectively had no choice but to seek the appointment of a counsel as a referee.
Interviewed on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler said the law "requires the appointment of an independent counsel for someone like Mr. Espy if further investigation is warranted."
Last week, Espy hired former federal prosecutor Reid Weingarten to represent him in the case. Before entering private practice, Weingarten had spent several years in the Justice Department's public integrity section, which has been supervising the Espy case.
Weingarten and a spokeswoman for Espy did not return calls to their homes Sunday.
The key to the case may hinge on whether Espy accepted favors at the same time he was delaying the imposition of Agriculture Department standards governing inspections at chicken-processing plants, including 66 plants operated by Tyson Foods.
The federal government eventually toughened the regulations, but only after the proposals were first scrapped on order of Espy's chief of staff.