Mike Espy and Rule 2635.7

October 05, 1994

A person identified in the official White House transcript only as "Sr. Admin. Official" was explaining to reporters the sacking of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. He said there was an accumulation of relatively minor matters, like the secretary's accepting small favors from giant agri-businesses he was responsible for regulating. Football tickets, airplane rides. Also, he commandeered a government Jeep Cherokee for personal use. Then the last straw: Tyson Foods Inc. gave his girl friend, Patricia Dempsey, a $1,200 scholarship to the University of Maryland.

"Q. 'What is troubling about a Tyson scholarship to a friend of Espy's?'

"A. 'Well, the question is were they trying to curry favor in any way with the secretary?'

"Q. 'Is there any evidence of any quid pro quo?'

"A. 'None whatsoever. We have found nothing.' "

But he was fired, anyway. Why? Rule 2635.7. Sr. Admin. Official explains: "There are rules regarding friends. What it [2635.7] says is that if you attempt to curry favor with an appointed official -- through friends -- it can be indirect, it doesn't have to be direct -- it's just as bad as if you curry favor with the official himself or herself." And, if caught, the official himself or herself is the one who pays, not the currier of favor.

Frankly, we find it hard to believe that a corporation whose counsel performed a $100,000 favor for the wife of a man who later became president of the United States would think it needed to give the secretary of agriculture's girl friend a $1,200 college scholarship to curry more favor. But that's what it has come to in Washington. Caesar's assistant's girlfriend has to be above suspicion.

(But Caesar's wife doesn't. Ms. Dempsey has given the $1,200 back. So far as we know, Mrs. Clinton has not given the $100,000 back. As Sr. Admin. Official explained, Rule 2635.7 only applies to indirect favor currying involving federal officials.)

Secretary Espy is not guiltless, even if, as now seems likely, he has not actually broken any laws (the Justice Department said he hadn't; a special prosecutor is looking into it). He knew the hothouse climate in Washington regarding ethical lapses and the appearance of ethical lapses by those with a high profile. We suspect he behaved so foolishly because taking small favors from special interests and taking advantage of government perks for personal business has long been second nature to members of the House of Representatives, where he used to hang his hat.

As secretary, Mr. Espy had won praise from consumers' and farmers' groups. The Department of Agriculture was undergoing major and long overdue restructuring. Too bad his career there has to end this way.

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