Mike Espy's poor judgment

August 12, 1994

Attorney General Janet Reno has asked a special court to name an independent counsel to investigate Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy's acceptance of gifts from two food-related corporations. She did so even though a Justice Department investigation is said to have concluded that Mr. Espy was not influenced by the gifts.

Ye gads, we hope not! He got tickets to a Dallas Cowboys football game from Tyson Foods and tickets to a Chicago Bulls game from Quaker Oats, and a few other freebies. "Several hundred dollars in value," according to the attorney general. If that is the going price in the influence-peddling game at the Agriculture Department, Dwayne Andreas must be crying in his ethanol. He and his food-products firm, Archer Daniels Midland, have given politicians and the major political parties over $1.5 million in the last seven years.

There have been rumors to the effect that Mr. Espy tried to cover up his acceptance of gifts, and other rumors that he may have been over-responsive to Tyson (an Arkansas-based giant) when his department was writing new regulations for chicken processors. If these are rumors that the Justice Department's own investigators decided were unfounded, this case does not deserve an independent counsel. Accepting such minor gifts shows poor judgment on Mr. Espy's part, not criminality. But given the reputation this administration has for wheeling and dealing with Arkansas business, it was perhaps inevitable that it was afraid of the public (especially Republican) reaction to not calling for an outside probe of Secretary Espy.

We hope the judges whose job it is to select an independent counsel for this case will show more judiciousness in their pick than they did last week in ousting Robert Fiske as Whitewater independent counsel and replacing him with a highly loyal Republican veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations who has been a very vocal critic of Bill Clinton. The whole point of independent counsels is to keep politics and any hint of partisanship -- pro or con -- out of the administration of justice.

That new Whitewater counsel, Kenneth Starr, was asked tresign by several Democrats. He refused, and he promises his "sole loyalty" is to "fair, just, thorough and prompt disposition of these matters pursuant to the Constitution and the laws of the United States." He's got to prove it. Even a hint that partisanship influenced any of his decisions in the months ahead will disgrace him and undermine the institution of independent counsel.

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