WASHINGTON — Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy was indicted Wednesday on charges he accepted more than $35,000 in gifts and favors from companies that did business with his department. He also was accused of lying to investigators in an effort to cover up his alleged misdeeds.
The 39-count indictment against Espy, the first current or former member of President Clinton's Cabinet to be charged with a crime, was returned by a federal grand jury after an almost three-year probe by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz.
The charges against Espy, 43, who resigned in late 1994 three months after Smaltz was appointed, mark the 16th indictment to result from the lengthy investigation. Espy's longtime friend, Richard Douglas, a former chief lobbyist for Sun-Diamond Growers of California, was charged last year with providing many of the gifts, and is facing trial in October.
Smaltz is one of three court-appointed independent counsels probing allegations involving past or present officials of the Clinton administration. The other counsels are Kenneth W. Starr, who is directing the Whitewater investigation, and David M. Barrett, who has been looking into alleged false statements by former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros.
The grand jury charged that Espy, a former Democratic congressman from Jackson, Miss., "solicited, received and accepted" gifts of expensive luggage, crystal, trips and tickets to athletic events from Douglas and representatives of other agribusiness firms over a 15-month period in 1993 and 1994. It is a violation of federal law for an official to accept gifts from persons or businesses that he regulates.
Espy, who previously has denied any wrongdoing, could not be reached immediately through his Mississippi law firm. Reid Weingarten, his Washington attorney, issued a statement declaring that Smaltz "has taken trivial, personal and entirely benign activities and attempted to distort them into criminal acts."
Weingarten added that "we look forward to going to court and restoring Mike Espy's good name."
The indictment did not allege that Espy took favorable actions in return for any gifts. Smaltz said it was not necessary to bring such charges, adding: "We will leave any such evidence to be developed at trial, which we hope will take place this fall."
Besides Sun-Diamond, most of the other gifts and favors were provided by Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas poultry processor, through its Washington lobbyist, Jack Williams, the grand jury said. The gifts allegedly included air fare, meals and lodging for a birthday party, a weekend trip to a professional football game and a $1,200 check to a woman friend of Espy's.
Sun-Diamond was convicted last year of giving expensive gifts to Espy and making illegal campaign contributions to his brother, and was fined $1.5 million. Williams, the Tyson lobbyist, was found guilty last March of lying about providing football and airline tickets to Espy. But a federal judge has set aside his conviction because of a problem with a prosecution witness, and ordered a new trial.
The grand jury also accused Espy of lying about his conduct to the White House, the FBI and the Agriculture Department's inspector general. He also was accused of witness tampering by directing another Agriculture Department employee to alter an official document that figured in the case; that charge alone carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence upon conviction.
If found guilty on all 39 counts, Espy would face a potential sentence of more than 100 years in prison.
Earlier this year, Donald Tyson, the founder of Tyson Foods and a longtime Clinton friend, testified before the grand jury after Smaltz granted him immunity from prosecution. The company has said it expects to be indicted but it denies it did anything illegal.
The company said Wednesday its relationship with Espy involved only "acts of common hospitality."
Although prosecutors are known to have pressured former Sun-Diamond lobbyist Douglas to testify against Espy in return for lenient treatment, Douglas apparently is determined to fight the charges against him in court this fall.
Douglas has said the gifts he gave Espy were based on a 25-year friendship between the two men who first met as college students in the 1970s at Howard University in Washington.