Reno seeks counsel in Espy probe

August 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday that she had asked a panel of federal appeals court judges to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy illegally accepted travel, lodging, entertainment and other gifts from the country's largest poultry producer.

In an application to the special three-judge panel Monday, Ms. Reno said that an initial inquiry showed that further investigation was warranted into Mr. Espy's association with Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas-based agricultural empire, and other companies with business before the Agriculture Department.

Mr. Espy, a former Democratic House member from Mississippi, has strongly denied wrongdoing but has declined to discuss the matters under scrutiny.

Yesterday, his lawyers issued a statement that said: "Secretary Espy has never misused his office in any way. There has been no misconduct in this case at all."

Most of the gifts to Mr. Espy under examination have been relatively small, and some have been repaid. Ms. Reno's application to the court said that no evidence had been uncovered to suggest that Mr. Espy had accepted the gifts in return for his performance of any official act.

Some officials said that the potential violations under investigation appear relatively minor but that Ms. Reno had little choice under the statute but to seek the appointment of an outside prosecutor.

Other investigators regard the issues as potentially more serious, involving a pattern of possible ethical violations that may have influenced Agriculture Department policies.

The independent counsel will be appointed by the same panel of judges that last Friday threw the Whitewater inquiry into turmoil by naming Kenneth W. Starr to replace Robert B. Fiske Jr. as the chief prosecutor on the case.

Ms. Reno's decision means that the Clinton administration must simultaneously manage two high-profile inquiries by independent counsels as it battles to make headway on its domestic and foreign policy agendas.

The investigation is potentially troubling for the Clinton administration because of its focus on Mr. Espy's dealings with Tyson Foods, whose president, Don Tyson, has long been a supporter of President Clinton. In addition, Jim Blair, Tyson's general counsel, helped guide Hillary Rodham Clinton through a series of risky commodities trades that earned her $100,000 in the late 1970s.

Ms. Reno's request follows a three-month investigation by the FBI and the Agriculture Department's inspector general's office.

The inquiries have evolved into a broad review of Mr. Espy's conduct that has sent morale plummeting at an agency long criticized for its cordial relationships with the interests it regulates.

The court papers made public yesterday outline Ms. Reno's proposed charter for the investigation, focusing primarily on the question of gifts, like travel and tickets to sporting events, that Mr. Espy may have improperly received from agricultural interests.

"It is our understanding that the allegations under scrutiny concern certain travel and entertainment expenses by Secretary Espy," the statement said. "All of Secretary Espy's official and personal travel and entertainment expenses have been properly accounted for and reimbursed."

The charter makes no specific reference to other issues that TTC have been investigated by the FBI, such as accusations by some Agriculture officials that a top aide to Mr. Espy directed them to stop work on tougher new rules for poultry inspection and to destroy all copies of the draft work.

l Law-enforcement officials said yesterday that the language of the charter, authorizing the independent counsel to investigate "evidence of violation of any federal law," is sufficiently broad to allow the prosecutor to delve into the shredding issue or any other matter.

The three-judge panel did not say who it would choose to investigate Mr. Espy or when it will make the appointment.

The head of the panel is David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The others are John D. Butzner Jr., a senior judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and Joseph T. Sneed, senior judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

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