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010147 Espy Pardon Erases Investigation

January 27, 2001

Washington - Exoneration by a jury was not enough to satisfy one-time Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

He said satisfaction came only with presidential pardons for friends and former colleagues caught up in a $23 million investigation that accused Espy of being too cozy with the industry he regulated.

Before President Clinton left office, he granted Espy's request for seven pardons and a commutation.

“I felt somewhat responsible because it all started with me,” said Espy, Clinton's first agriculture secretary. “It's a fitting ending.”

A jury found Espy innocent in 1998 of taking illegal gifts, but eight others pleaded guilty or were convicted of various charges in the investigation by special prosecutor Donald Smaltz.

The first Clinton pardon came last month, when he spared Tyson Foods executive Archie Schaffer III from a one-year jail term. On his final day in office, Clinton pardoned six others and commuted the sentence of Espy's former chief of staff, Ronald Blackley.

“Nobody's popping champagne corks,” said Espy, who is returning to Washington this month to practice law. “It doesn't wash away the pain and anguish of the last six years, especially with those who experienced jail time.”

Smaltz did not return telephone calls. He had accused Espy of accepting gifts and trips from Tyson and other businesses and lying about them.

Celia Viggo Wexler, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Common Cause, said the pardons were disappointing but not surprising.

“The whole thing was such a huge mess. It's the frosting on the cake that's fallen,” she said. “It's disturbing if it comes out of an attitude that this wasn't serious business that was being investigated.”

Three people who were pardoned had convictions involving gifts - Schaffer, former Tyson Foods lobbyist Jack L. Williams and lobbyist Richard Douglas.

The cases of three others involved illegal campaign contributions to Espy's brother, Henry, who lost a congressional race in 1993. Pardoned were lobbyist James H. Lake, former New Orleans attorney Alvarez Ferrouillet Jr. and John Hemmingson, former head of a major crop insurance company.

The final two were from Espy's home state of Mississippi - farmer Brook Keith Mitchell Sr., who pleaded guilty to wrongly collecting crop subsidies, and Blackley.

The only one in prison when Clinton issued his pardon was Blackley, serving a 27-month sentence for failing to disclose $22,000 he received from agribusiness interests.

Blackley said he learned of Clinton's commutation of his sentence when he was called out of a line of prisoners after an inmate count at a prison in Florida.

He described himself and the other seven who were pardoned as victims of an effort to bring down Espy.

“It's ridiculous, the amount of money they spent to get no more out of it than they did,” Blackley said four days after his release.

Espy, who appealed for the pardons in letters to Clinton, has not ruled out a return to politics. The Mississippi law firm he works for opens a Washington office this week, and Espy plans to handle government issues there while also working in the firm's Jackson, Miss., office.

Espy had once been a rising politician. In 1986 he became Mississippi's first black congressman this century. He left the job in 1993 to become the nation's first black agriculture secretary.

A year later he was accused of violating a 90-year-old federal law banning gifts to meat inspectors. The charges stemmed from his acceptance of about $33,000 in gifts and entertainment.

Espy has said he fought to keep the job, but was forced to resign because the Clinton administration did not want to be involved with a scandal. A jury in Washington found him innocent in 1998 after a two-month trial.


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