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Espy Quits Amid Probe of Ethics : Cabinet: Secretary of Agriculture faces allegations of abusing perquisites of office. He apparently hoped to spare the Administration embarrassment.

October 04, 1994|SARA FRITZ and DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned abruptly Monday, apparently hoping to spare the Clinton Administration the embarrassment of an independent counsel's investigation of allegations that he abused the perquisites of office and improperly accepted sports tickets and trips from businesses.

Espy's surprise decision to step down by Dec. 31 ended prematurely the once-promising tenure of the Administration's youngest Cabinet appointee and the first African American to serve as agriculture secretary. With the departure of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Espy becomes the second Clinton Cabinet official to resign.

The decision also proved to be a humiliating admission of defeat for the energetic young Espy, who had vowed to survive what he claimed were politically motivated and unsubstantiated allegations that he violated ethics laws by accepting the hospitality of such companies as Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Quaker Oats of Missouri and Sun Diamond of California.

Meanwhile, The Times has learned, another Clinton Cabinet official whose actions are under scrutiny, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, has told White House officials that he is willing to step down, too, if the Justice Department determines that he misled the FBI before his appointment about payments in excess of $200,000 to a former woman friend. She has alleged that Cisneros agreed to pay the money to help alleviate damage to her career as a result of a romantic relationship between them some years ago.

Espy, 40, a former Mississippi congressman, announced his resignation at a hastily scheduled news conference and insisted that he had not been asked to step down by the President or any other White House official.

"This was my choice," he said.

Nevertheless, his resignation came as the White House counsel's office was completing work on an internal review of the Espy matter that apparently uncovered reasons to challenge the agriculture secretary's contention that he had done nothing wrong. Among other things, the White House inquiry uncovered a previously unknown $1,200 "scholarship" that Pat Dempsey, a woman friend of Espy's, received from Tyson Foods.

Sources said that White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva briefed Espy last Friday on the preliminary results of their review and gave him until Monday to decide how to respond. They were said to have left little doubt that they wanted him to quit.

"We didn't want this to linger," said a senior official, adding that White House officials were determined in this case to avoid the criticism they had received for failing to obtain the prompt resignation of Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman after he was accused of lying to a congressional committee.

In a statement accepting Espy's resignation, the President said he was troubled by the appearance of conflict of interest created by Espy's acceptance of favors from industry sources and he concluded that the secretary's resignation was suitable.

"Over the last few weeks . . . the Office of the White House Counsel has reviewed information about Secretary Espy and the actions he took while in office," Clinton said. "Although Secretary Espy has said he has done nothing wrong, I am troubled by the appearance of some of these incidents and believe his decision to leave is appropriate."

Yet because Espy's resignation does not take effect for three months, Clinton will not be forced to face the politically sensitive task of selecting a successor until after the November election. Among the contenders to succeed him are Ruth Harkin, wife of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Robert Rominger, former California agriculture secretary.

While Espy's resignation spares Clinton the political damage of having a sitting Cabinet member under a cloud, it nonetheless does nothing to limit Espy's own legal liability. The investigation of Espy will continue under independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz.

Among other things, Smaltz is investigating Espy's acceptance of lodging at the picturesque Tyson Management Center after a speech to the Arkansas Poultry Federation and his return trip to Washington aboard a Tyson corporate jet. Dempsey accompanied him on that trip and also enjoyed the Tyson company's hospitality.

In addition, Espy and Dempsey attended a National Football League playoff game as guests of Tyson.

For Clinton, the allegations against Espy related to Tyson Foods were the most politically volatile. The President has often been accused of accepting favors from the head of the corporation, Don Tyson, a prominent Democrat in Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

In addition, some critics claim that while Espy was accepting personal favors from Tyson Foods, his department was slow to act on proposals to improve poultry industry inspections--a charge the secretary has vehemently denied.

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