WASHINGTON -- The FBI and the Justice Department are at odds over whether to curtail a politically sensitive investigation into allegations that Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy accepted personal favors from the Arkansas-based poultry processing giant Tyson Foods Inc., sources said yesterday.
While the FBI believes it has not yet exhausted all avenues of inquiry, high-level Justice Department officials are pressing to close the case because they say investigators have found insufficient evidence that Mr. Espy violated the law, sources reported.
The probe of Mr. Espy's ties to Tyson Foods is potentially embarrassing for President Clinton because the former Arkansas governor had been accused of showing favoritism to longtime friend and supporter Don Tyson, head of the company, which is the largest employer in Mr. Clinton's home state.
Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged at a news conference that the FBI has been probing allegations that Mr. Espy violated the 1907 Meat Inspection Act by accepting Tyson Food's hospitality during a visit to the company's corporate headquarters in Springdale, Ark., and by sitting in the Tyson Foods sky box at a Dallas Cowboys football game.
The investigation is said to hinge on allegations that Mr. Espy accepted these favors at the same time that he was delaying the imposition of Agriculture Department standards governing inspections at chicken processing plants, including 66 plants operated by Tyson Foods.
Sources familiar with the probe said that Justice and FBI officials had a "heated meeting" Tuesday in which the investigators strongly objected to the department's desire to curtail the probe.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern acknowledged that the department was "nearing a decision on whether to close" the case, but he declined to elaborate.
An initial decision is in the hands of Jo Ann Harris, assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division.
Mr. Espy refused to comment. The Agriculture Department issued a statement saying that the secretary is cooperating fully with the investigation.
Tyson Foods issued a statement saying: "For anyone to think that Tyson Foods has gotten special or preferential treatment from the Department of Agriculture or any of its units is ludicrous