High court to decide when a gift to U.S. official becomes a crime Case involves gratuities given agriculture secretary by Calif. agribusiness

November 03, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court stepped into the world of Washington lobbying, agreeing yesterday to decide when a gift or a special favor for a government official turns into a federal crime.

The special prosecutor who is investigating gifts made to former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy asked the court to rule that it is a crime to provide anything of value to an official solely because of that official's position in the government.

A federal appeals court, however, has ruled that a gift is illegal only when it is given to reward an official for some specific action -- either an act done in the past or promised in the future.

There must be an intention to influence an official act, not simply to do something for someone who holds a government post, according to the decision in March by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington.

Thus, the appeals court wiped out the conviction of Sun-Diamond Growers of California, a cooperative of producers of fruits and nuts, and ordered a new trial on the charge of giving illegal gratuities.

Donald C. Smaltz, the independent counsel in the Espy case, complained in an appeal to the Supreme Court that the lower court, in effect, was requiring proof that the gratuities were "equivalent to a bribe." It ought to be enough, Smaltz contended, to show that the official received the gift only because of his position.

Sun-Diamond was convicted of providing illegal gifts when its vice president for corporate affairs, Richard Douglas, a college classmate of Espy's, gave the secretary $5,900 in gifts.

Espy was given tickets to a tennis tournament, luggage, meals, and a framed print and crystal bowl. As agriculture secretary, Espy was in a position to influence two policy issues of interest to Sun-Diamond.

Douglas has been testifying over the past week as a prosecution witness at Espy's trial, now a month old.

In a plea bargain with prosecutors, Douglas pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of lying to the FBI, in return for testifying against Espy.

His company was convicted of giving illegal gratuities to Espy through Douglas and was fined $1.5 million. But the conviction and fine were overturned by the appeals court.

A Supreme Court ruling in the case is expected sometime next year.

In another action yesterday, the court agreed to clarify the rights of federal employees to have a labor union representative on hand at a hearing that could lead to disciplinary action.

That ruling will come in the case of an Alabama employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who was accused of writing letters threatening co-workers with violence.

The court also said it will review the constitutionality of a federal law that gives the president authority to drop an officer from the military rolls after the officer has been convicted at a court-martial.

The federal appeals court for the armed forces struck down that law in the case of an Air Force major who was convicted of assault for having had sex with two women -- a fellow officer and a civilian -- while he was infected with HIV virus.

After the officer was sentenced to six years in prison, President Clinton dropped him from the military rolls.

That action, the officer contended, amounted to added punishment for the same crime.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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