Espy probe clouds a once-rising star

August 13, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A week after Mike Espy was sworn in as the nation's first African-American and first Southern agriculture secretary, he was on a plane to the Pacific Northwest, which was reeling from a deadly outbreak of food poisoning from fast-food hamburgers.

He met with the families of children who had died, called for reforms of the meat-inspection system and, in a political culture that is fast to anoint heroes and villains, was quickly pegged as a rising star of the Clinton Cabinet.

A year and a half later, with the early raves diluted by some disenchantment, the soft-spoken former Mississippi congressman is struggling to hold onto his standing, his integrity, perhaps even his job, as an independent counsel is about to investigate him for cozying up to companies his department oversees.

The independent counsel, to be appointed by the same judicial panel that recently named a new Whitewater prosecutor, will examine whether Mr. Espy improperly accepted sports tickets, travel and lodging from companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., an Arkansas firm that has become the world's largest poultry processor and has close ties to President Clinton.

The probe, along with an investigation by the Office of Government Ethics requested by the White House, will also examine whether Mr. Espy's relationship with Tyson led to less-stringent regulation of the poultry industry.

Mr. Espy, at 40 the youngest member of the Cabinet, has said he reimbursed Tyson for all gifts and denies suggestions that he was lenient on the chicken industry.

"All of this can be explained," he said this week. "I have done nothing wrong. I'm sure I'll be cleared."

But the ethics cloud has been disturbing for a man who brazenly lobbied President-elect Clinton for the Cabinet post, a man who stood before TV cameras on Christmas Eve in 1992 and dedicated his appointment to his late father, who had worked as a "Negro" county extension agent in the then-segregated Agriculture Department.

Aside from tarnishing his own image, the allegations have embarrassed an administration already besieged by one independent counsel and several ethical missteps.

"I'd be less than honest with you to say I'm not troubled by it," Mr. Espy said on his way to a conference earlier in the week.

Until recently, criticism of Mr. Espy has been gentle.

A low-key, likable guy, a post civil rights-era politician who was Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction, he has proved a popular figure on the cattle ranches and cornfields and in poor rural areas.

Unlike previous secretaries, who have been mostly devoted to agribusiness, Mr. Espy, who hails from a prominent Delta family, has won the praise of small-time farmers, consumer and nutrition advocates.

'Most farmer-friendly'

"He is the most farmer-friendly, pro-active secretary we've had in a couple decades," says Larry Mitchell, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, pointing to the secretary's ban on farm home foreclosures and promotion of international markets.

Farm officials say his swift response to the E. coli outbreak in the Northwest, which killed four children, restored public confidence meat inspections and prevented consumption from declining.

But Mr. Espy, a lawyer and moderate Democrat who spent six years on Capitol Hill, has come under increasing attacks for failing to see his initiatives through. His department contains the nation's fourth-largest bureaucracy, overseeing everything from farms to forestry to food stamps.

"Most of his accomplishments have been in press releases," says James C. Webster, an assistant agriculture secretary in the Carter administration who now publishes an industry newsletter.

rTC Mr. Espy is given highest marks for increasing funds for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, for a cost-saving plan to reorganize his department of 110,000 people and, unlike his predecessors, for putting food safety and nutrition at the top of his agenda.

But the reorganization is stalled in Congress, and some activists say the department's food-safety advocacy has been mostly lip service.

'Not accomplished much'

"I give him high marks for effort," says Carol Tucker Foreman, president of the Safe Food Coalition and a USDA assistant secretary under President Jimmy Carter. "But he has not done very well in getting his department organized and getting the right people in to make changes happen. So far, they have labored mightily and not accomplished much."

The most controversial food-safety issue -- the one at the heart of the impending investigations -- is meat and poultry inspection.

After the E. coli outbreak in January 1993, Mr. Espy immediately issued orders to hire 500 meat inspectors, to conduct surprise inspections of slaughterhouses, to put safe-handling labels on products and to tighten bacterial standards for beef.

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