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4 Plead Guilty in Clinton Donation Case

Politics: Agriculture Department workers were pressured to give to 1992 campaign. One current and three former USDA employees face sentencing.


WASHINGTON — One current and three former Agriculture Department employees pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to pressure subordinates and colleagues to contribute to a political committee that supported Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid in return for favorable job consideration after the election.

After a 17-month Justice Department investigation, the longtime career employees acknowledged soliciting and collecting 18 campaign donations, ranging from $25 to $500, at the Agriculture Department's headquarters in actions that are prohibited by federal law.

In addition, they admitted in federal District Court to telling co-workers that contributing to a Democratic political action committee might earn them special employment consideration under a Democratic administration. This was also a legal violation.

Campaign finance experts said that the case is the first to their knowledge involving career federal employees raising campaign funds at a government workplace and linking them to professional benefits. Government personnel specialists said that such political influence in the Civil Service undermines fundamental merit employment principles.

"It's important to the American people to know that a federal employee can work free of political pressure," federal prosecutor Laura A. Ingersoll said. "And it's important the American people know that their public servants serve the people, not political parties."

The contributions were raised for the Farmers & Ranchers '92 Political Action Committee. Based in Little Rock, Ark., the committee spent its funds primarily on behalf of Clinton's 1992 campaign.

The House Agriculture Committee, which has undertaken its own inquiry, plans a hearing Sept. 24 on the improper political activity. Both inquiries were launched after The Times disclosed the fund-raising and subsequent partisan activity in November 1994.

The four men pleaded guilty to conspiring to promise a federal benefit or special consideration as a reward for political activity, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. Sentencing is set for Dec. 13.

The four are Jack L. Webb, 59, Haymarket, Va.; Jeffress A. Wells, 60, Fuquay Varina, Va.; Jack S. Forlines, 62, Raleigh, N.C.; and Grady L. Bilberry, 48, Bowie, Md.

Only Bilberry remains at the Agriculture Department, where he is director of the price support division of the Farm Services Agency. He said he told co-workers that, if they contributed, "they wouldn't be forgotten." He collected a total of $275 from four colleagues.

Tom Amontree, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, declined to say whether the department would take action against Bilberry.

The funds were channeled through Grant B. Buntrock, who was a Democratic farm activist at the time. After the election, he was appointed to oversee the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, then the nation's major domestic farm subsidy program.

Buntrock has not been charged with wrongdoing. Ingersoll said that the Justice investigation is continuing. Buntrock is now administrator of the Farm Service Agency, which was established in 1994 to handle all farm commodity and agricultural credit programs, and disaster and federal crop insurance. He could not be reached for comment.

Ingersoll said that Webb, Wells and Forlines, all supervisors, met in mid-1992 with an individual outside the department--who sources say was Buntrock--to hatch the plan to raise campaign funds for Farmers & Ranchers from those known to be Democrats at USDA.

In 1993, after his appointment, Buntrock arranged for Webb, Wells and several other USDA employees who had contributed to Farmers & Ranchers to meet with a recent political appointee who had headed the political action committee. Congressional sources said that this was Miles Goggans, the committee's former treasurer who was then a special assistant for agriculture to President Clinton.


"The meeting was arranged for the purpose of allowing the defendants and their co-workers to inquire about employment-related benefits that they might receive," court documents said.

Many of the 38 individuals who contributed--including Webb, Wells, Forlines and Bilberry--subsequently received promotions or more desirable positions in the agency.

Amontree declined to comment on the pleas. But he said that, under Glickman, "there is zero tolerance for any improper campaign activity by employees of USDA. In addition, the secretary has required all members of his sub-Cabinet and political employees to attend . . . briefings to ensure they are properly informed on what constitutes a violation."

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