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Independent Counsel Sought in Espy Case : Probe: The attorney general makes the request. Her department alleges the agriculture secretary received gifts from groups his office regulates.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Tuesday sought appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy broke the law by accepting gifts worth “at least several hundred dollars” from a major poultry producer regulated by his department.

In a broadly worded mandate to the special three-judge court that would name the counsel, Reno said the Justice Department’s preliminary investigation uncovered a number of instances in which Espy is alleged to have received gifts from organizations and individuals with business pending before his department.

The mission of the independent counsel proposed by Reno was broad enough to include allegations that Ronald Blackley, Espy’s chief of staff in March, 1993, ordered Agriculture Department officials to halt work on developing tougher poultry inspection standards and to erase a draft of the proposal from their computers’ memories. Blackley has denied giving the orders on the inspection standards, which were strongly opposed by poultry producers.

Although Espy has proclaimed his innocence and White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers Tuesday reiterated President Clinton’s confidence in his Cabinet member, the investigation is sensitive for the Clintons because it involves Tyson Foods Inc. of Arkansas. Tyson President Don Tyson is a longtime Clinton backer and the firm’s outside counsel, James B. Blair, helped First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton make nearly $100,000 in commodity trading profits in 1978, 1979 and 1980 on an initial investment of $1,000.

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The Justice Department’s preliminary inquiry found no evidence that Espy accepted gifts as a reward for past or future acts, Reno said in her application to the court. But the law bars the department from declining to ask for an independent counsel because of lack of evidence of the required intent “unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the person lacked such state of mind.”

Moreover, she noted that the Independent Counsel Act significantly restricts the department from exercising “its customary prosecutorial discretion when investigating a person under the act” and removes such traditional investigative tools as a grand jury. The discretion and the tools are left to an independent counsel to exercise.

The special court took no immediate action in naming an outside prosecutor. The same panel last Friday named Kenneth W. Starr, solicitor general during the George Bush Administration, to take over the Whitewater probe from Robert B. Fiske Jr., whom Reno had appointed after a previous independent counsel law had expired.

In the Espy case, the department’s investigation developed evidence that he had accepted gifts from Tyson Foods on two separate trips, one to Arkansas in May, 1993, and one to Texas last January, Reno said.

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The 1993 trip involved a speech by Espy to the Arkansas Poultry Federation in Russellville, Ark., and a stay with a companion, Patricia Dempsey, at a group of Tyson cottages on a lake there. Espy and Dempsey returned to Washington on a Tyson plane, which Espy has explained by saying that he had to return quickly for an unexpected White House meeting. Tyson said Espy reimbursed the company for the cost of a first-class ticket.

The January trip reportedly involved Espy and Dempsey sitting in Tyson’s sky box during the National Football League’s National Conference championship game between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. At the time, Espy has said, he was in Texas for a meeting with an Agriculture Department official.

The other instances in which Espy is alleged to have received gifts from organizations with business before his department are understood to include a request that he had made of Chicago-based Quaker Oats for a ticket to a Chicago Bulls playoff game. He is alleged to have used the personal season ticket of Quaker Oats’ chief executive, William Smithburg.

In a statement, Evan T. Barr, one of Espy’s lawyers, said all of his client’s “official and personal travel and entertainment expenses have been properly accounted for and reimbursed. Secretary Espy has never misused his office in any way at all.”

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In her application to the court, Reno noted that the anti-gratuity statute, one of the laws under which Espy’s actions will be examined, is a strict statute that bars department employees with responsibilities under the Meat Inspection Act from accepting any gift from anybody engaged in commerce, without regard to intent.


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