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Ah, the Powerful Lure of the Freebie : Politics: History is full of Washingtonians who misuse the privileges of power. But is it corruption or plain old sloppiness?


WASHINGTON — Mike Espy, as they say, had everything going for him.

The first African American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction, the youngest member of the Clinton Cabinet, he was getting good marks as Agriculture Secretary until, investigators say, he started accepting small favors from Tyson Foods Inc., the giant poultry processor his department is supposed to regulate.

With that, Espy, who resigned Monday effective Dec. 31, joined the ranks of supposedly savvy politicians who, in the harsh klieg lights of Washington, proved themselves not ready for prime time.

From Sherman Adams, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief aide, who received an infamous vicuna coat, to President George Bush's Chief of Staff John Sununu, who used military transportation to go to stamp shows and the dentist, Washington history is replete with once powerful people who overstepped the line.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 23, 1994 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 Column 5 View Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
William French Smith--An Oct. 7 article in Life & Style misstated the circumstances surrounding the resignation of William French Smith as attorney general in the Reagan White House. While he had received criticism in 1982 over a personal tax matter, that criticism had ceased by January, 1984--when Smith announced his intention to step down--and was not cited as a reason for his resignation.

"It's a fairly common problem that you generally see at the beginning of every Administration as people come in from the outside," said Marlin Fitzwater, a Washington veteran who was Bush's press secretary. "In the business and the academic world, these things (free trips and the like) are a recognized form of compensation."

Such freebies have also been characteristic of the Congress, where Espy served into a fourth term before resigning to take the agriculture post.

A number of Washington hands have suggested that his downfall resulted from bringing his Congressional ethics, or lack thereof, with him.

"He came to the executive branch via the legislative branch and did not realize that the easy virtue of a legislator would have to change," theorized Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"The type of scrutiny you get in the executive branch at a high level is unique," Hess continued. "It doesn't come to businessmen, university professors or even congressmen by and large."

Still, the Espy affair is atypical, said longtime lobbyist Tom Korologos.

"The guys who get in trouble in this town are the ones who've never been here before. Suddenly, they have an official car, they eat in the White House mess and go to the Kennedy Center.

"That's why this Espy thing is so mysterious," Korologos said. "I don't understand how a pro like him could get in trouble like this. Maybe he's the exception that proves the rule."

The Reagan Administration holds the modern record for appointees who slipped up on ethical or other grounds.

National Security Adviser Richard Allen had to make a quick exit in 1981 after it was revealed that he took $1,000 from Japanese journalists seeking an interview with Nancy Reagan.

And who can forget Interior Secretary James Watt's 1983 boast that he had appointed "a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple" to an advisory commission--a comment that even in those politically less correct days had him cleaning out his desk forthwith.

Reagan's first Attorney General, William French Smith, resigned under press criticism for personal tax matters. His successor, Edwin Meese, survived almost until the end of Reagan's second term but was under almost continual investigation because of accusations of corruption and conflicts of interest; he was never charged.

The Reagan Administration also holds the dubious distinction of being the only one to have had a Cabinet member step down because of a criminal indictment.

The 1984 charges against Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan predated his Washington days. Donovan, a former New Jersey construction company executive, was alleged to have defrauded New York City of more than $7 million on a subway project. He was acquitted.


President Clinton promised during his campaign to "do better" than the Republicans on ethical as well as policy matters.

So when longtime Arkansas friend David Watkins was revealed last summer to have used the President's helicopter twice to go play golf--at a cost to the taxpayers of more than $13,000--he was forced out as White House director of administration.

This week, government officials confirmed that General Services Administration chief Roger W. Johnson, former chairman of Western Digital Corp. in Irvine, is under investigation for the second time in his tenure over allegations that he misused his government position for personal benefit. An agency spokeswoman attributed it to "unfamiliarity with the rules."

White House overzealousness in attempting to contain the Whitewater affair has caused the most casualties, among them White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman.

Altman, another political pro and Friend of Bill who, like Espy, seemed to have everything going for him, was caught telling less than the whole truth about his Whitewater dealings to the Senate Banking Committee.

Despite the irony of the fact that several of his chief accusers have themselves been investigated for alleged ethical misconduct, Altman, a former Wall Street executive and Treasury official under President Jimmy Carter, is leaving.


Meanwhile, his boss, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a former Senator and the archetypal Washington old hand, whom Altman had apparently expected to replace, remains firmly entrenched.

What distinguishes those who self-destruct from the likes of Bentsen or former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, whose Washington shelf life seems to go on forever?

"Some people are very narcissistic and entitled and feel they deserve to be in a power position and don't need to hold to the same rules that others do," said Dr. Susan J. Fiester, a psychiatrist who gained her own measure of fame when she aided in the defense of the knife-wielding Lorena Bobbitt.

While declining to characterize Espy or others she has not met, Fiester said that some politicians, like people in other fields, have a hard time setting boundaries for personal conduct.

"There are a whole bunch of people who are personally corrupt," she said. "On the other hand, some people are just sloppy."

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