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Tyson Lobbyist Indicted in Federal Probe

Agriculture: The charges concern gifts the firm gave to the girlfriend of former Clinton Cabinet member Mike Espy.

September 18, 1996|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted a Washington lobbyist for Tyson Foods Inc. on charges that he lied to federal investigators about gifts the company provided to former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's girlfriend and to a former Agriculture Department official.

The two-count indictment against Jack L. Williams was the first brought by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz involving Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based poultry giant that had been a major supporter of President Clinton.

Sources close to the two-year inquiry said that it could lay the groundwork for charging Tyson with providing illegal gratuities and, eventually, for charges that Espy had accepted them. It is the fifth separate criminal case to arise from Smaltz's inquiry.

Espy, who resigned in late 1994 amid allegations that he had accepted illegal gratuities from Tyson and other companies regulated by the Agriculture Department, has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He has denied violating any laws.

Henry F. Schuelke, Williams' attorney, said that his client "intends to assert a vigorous defense" and "fully expects to be vindicated."

Tyson, which has been sharply critical of Smaltz, said in a prepared statement that all of its dealings with the Agriculture Department during Espy's tenure were "honest, above board and appropriate" and that the charges against Williams have no merit.

Williams, an independent lobbyist who has clients other than Tyson, is charged with making false statements to federal investigators in March and June 1994, before Smaltz's appointment.

Williams allegedly sought to mislead investigators about tickets and airline travel to a professional football game and a college scholarship that the company provided to Patricia Dempsey, Espy's girlfriend, and a ticket to a college basketball game and an airline upgrade that the company gave to Pat Jensen, then acting assistant agriculture secretary.

Neither Dempsey nor Jensen are identified by name in the indictment, but sources familiar with the investigation confirmed that the references in the court document applied to them.

In the first count, Williams is charged with falsely denying to agents for the Agriculture Department's inspector general that he knew Espy had been a guest of Tyson Foods at the National Football Conference championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in Irving, Texas, on Jan. 16, 1994.

In fact, the indictment asserts, Williams had arranged and paid for the $1,009 round-trip airline ticket for Dempsey to attend the game with Espy as guests of Tyson Foods and Chairman Don Tyson in the company's corporate sky box at Texas Stadium.

In addition, the indictment asserts that Williams sought to conceal that Tyson Foundation Inc., with Williams acting as an intermediary, had awarded Dempsey a $1,200 college scholarship in January 1993. The nonprofit foundation was directed by John Tyson, Don Tyson's son.

Williams is also charged with falsely claiming that he did not know Tyson had provided a ticket to Jensen to attend a University of Arkansas basketball game as well as an airline upgrade to first class for her return trip to Washington from Arkansas in February 1994. The indictment says that Williams offered to obtain a ticket for Jensen to join Don Tyson and other company executives in Tyson's sky box at the same time that he invited her to meet with Tyson officials.

Jensen, who since has left the department, supervised Agriculture's marketing and inspection services, which were charged with overseeing the safety of meat and poultry products. She subsequently reimbursed Williams for the $13 ticket and $84 upgrade.

In the second count, Williams is charged with concealing similar information from FBI agents investigating allegations of impropriety by Espy. Williams allegedly maintained that he did not remember discussing or making travel arrangements for Dempsey to go to Dallas as Tyson's guest and that he had no knowledge of Espy's plans to attend the football game.

Williams could face a maximum of five years' imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 for each count if convicted.

The indictment asserts that both Espy and Jensen were covered by the 1907 Meat Inspection Act, a particularly tough federal law that prohibits officials who oversee any aspect of meat inspection from accepting a gift, money or anything of value from the industry.

Espy's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, has maintained that Espy should not be covered by the act, which was intended to deal with bribery of meat inspectors.

Weingarten could not be reached Tuesday.

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