Interview Ron Blackley


As a rice-broker and farm consultant in the Mississippi Delta, Blackley began working for then-Congressman Mike Espy as a part-time assistant. When Espy took over as Secretary of Agriculture, he brought Blackley along as his chief of staff.

Mr. Blackley, just a few moments ago you stood in a courtroom before a federal judge and were sentenced to 27 months in prison. Pretty harsh sentence, given what you were charged with, which was making a false statement. Give me a sense of what it is like to go through that and how far that moment was from what you imagined when you left Mississippi and came here to be public servant.

I felt that this was the end that was inevitable to come. But it does open up the door, that we move out of the system that we were in, into an appeals system.... I believe the independent counsel used the statement that I had lied a number of times. Where I am from, Mississippi, half-truths are the same as a lie, and they have been using half-truths since day one. So, to me, it is a lot to face, a lot for my family to have to consider and worry about. It also opens the door to hopefully an impartial opportunity to deal with these situations. I have stated and stay with this all the way through this: I haven't lied and I am not going to start now. So we will continue to fight this....

You have not expressed remorse. At this moment how would you characterize your feelings?

My thoughts always, growing up and being an adult, [were] that a judge was supposed to be unbiased, in a position to just control what goes on in court. Our judge had the luck of the draw. I understand that he is one of the finest judges in Washington when it comes to the law. When politics is involved, he is totally biased to the political side. The judge has been in the news a lot lately and I think he is starting to like it. We haven't had a ruling on a motion this entire case that has been in our favor that I know of. My understanding and reading of the motions, there is some good legal backgrounds that some should come in our way. The judge restricted our opportunity for a defense, while giving broad latitude to the independent counsel to bring any allegation, unproven, before the court, before a jury.

Why do you think that is? Why would a judge behave that way in court?

Because I think the judge weighed the facts and knew that without influence other than what was in the charge, that the independent counsel wasn't going to get a verdict and it effectively could shut him down.... xfI am telling you how I saw it, sitting there as a defendant, watching the actions of the judge. Watching him attack a former counsel of mine verbally, who is counsel for my son at present, when all he did was get up and tell the truth that the independent counsel was offering half truths, to clear the air. He took verbal abuse on that. Read the court reporter's notes, it is all there. It is obvious to anybody. This is a political arena that we are dealing with, but I have honestly had Republicans tell me that they couldn't believe that this can go on and the way it is going on.

You have no doubt that what you have just endured these last months culminating this phase of it anyway today, has been a political trial.

The judge stated this morning that not only should I be embarrassed, but this administration should be embarrassed for what I have done.

I came to this town not knowing a lot about how it worked, but I did understand the Department of Agriculture. I worked 18-20 hour days, seven days a week, which took time away from my family. I came up here in January of 1993, and my wife came in August. My son went off to school. I spent time away from my family because I was committed to the President, to this administration, that the things that had gone on in the past wouldn't go on under this administration as far as abuse to the people that are the receivers of the policy that is set by the Department of Agriculture....

You are convicted of a felony, you are now sentenced of a felony. You are not a felon?

I'm not a felon. The judge allowed up to three or four of the jurors to sleep during the testimony. I don't blame them, it was very boring, but since it was my life on the line, as we say, I paid attention because I couldn't believe some of the things that were stated and how they were stated....

When I came to Washington, as I wrapped up my life in Mississippi, I gave a business that I had, a marketing business, to a friend. Business was basically a brokerage of rough rice from the farmer to a buyer, and in some scenarios the money for those sales came at a later date, and the majority of this money, or a good portion of it, was in fact commissions that were paid to the business upon settlement from the mills, after I came to Washington. The person who got it did what he thought was right. He took the moneys he felt was due to me and passed them on. When I filled out a financial disclosure in 1993, I listed Mississippi Rice Services on the financial disclosure.

This was the company that you jointly owned.

That I owned. I didn't jointly own.

But you had sold to...

I didn't sell, I gave it to him. It is a name company only, there were no assets. I listed that company and I went through what had been received, what was expected to be received and came up with an estimated earned income for 1992. Now bearing in mind, I am cutting all ties with business. I got out of the business. I had a consulting business that was "Ron Blackley and Associates" that dealt with farmers on farm plans, conservation reserve, in different aspects. There was no one to give that to, no one that was willing to put the time in that would take to deal with this. I just did away with it. It was gone.... In my mind, I had cleared all that. I had no outside outcome. I wasn't earning any income from anywhere except my government salary....

Is there a brief sort of elementary description of what a rice broker does? What is a rice broker?

Briefly, you market a saleable commodity, harvested rice, from a farmer, to any buyer. In most cases it is a rice mill.

So you are in essence the middle man.

In essence, yes. My responsibility was to see, one, that the mill got what they purchased, that the delivery was made, and then from the producers side, to make sure that the mill paid and that the disbursement was made back, and for that I received 2.5 cents bushel commission....

So, you were a rice broker. Separately from that you were a farm consultant. A farm consultant is what exactly?

The Department of Agriculture changes regulations so fast and the policy changes come through so quick that sometime even the local office that deals with the farmer doesn't get a chance to read all of them. If a farmer wanted to make a change within his operation, he needed to know what effects it was going to make on him at a later date, not just at the time he is making it, and I had the God given ability to read through this and deal with farmers, saying if you go this way, in three years this is what your operation is going to look like; if you go this way it will look like this. And their choices were made based on information that they could get and information that I provided to them.

So you had an expertise in, among other things, reading, understanding and applying Department of Agriculture regulations. Pertaining to what areas? What was the most important area in a farmer's life in which Department of Agriculture affects his business?

In the majority of farmers it has to do with the ability to be within the guidelines of the current year farm program, which says you set aside X acres. You grow crop on X acres. If you do these things, then you have the right to put this commodity after harvest, in government loan, wait for the price to go to the level that you want to sell at, repay the loan, take the commodity out and sell it.


FARM SUPPORT PROGRAM

Basically it is the government farm support program.

It is the farm support program. The other side of that, which is misunderstood by most everybody who tries to understand it, is deficiency payments. People would have you believe that once a man signs up that he is eligible to receive, at the time that I was involved, $50,000, and that he received $50,000. What they don't seem to want to point out is that this is a computed weighted average sale on commodities by all sales within the U.S., and if there is a payment, then he is eligible for a payment up to the maximum.

Isn't that the way it usually works out though?

If he participates in a program, if he understands what he is doing and he doesn't violate any of the program guidelines, he is eligible for what the payment comes out. Just because he is eligible for $50,000 doesn't mean he is going to get it.... Doesn't go by what that individual does, it goes by the computed average, and he may end up with no government payment....

To be eligible in most cases for a $50,000 payment, in some form or fashion he has to have a liability of about half a million dollars. Now that is land payment, equipment payment, labor, seed...

We went from the 70's where people didn't have to participate in government programs because the prices were strong, to the 80's, to where if they were going to make a profit they had to participate in the government program, and from that to the point that if they were going to survive they had to participate.

To the farmers you knew and worked with, how important was this government program to just there making it?

It was very important.... There was nobody that I dealt with that could cash flow a farming operation without the government payment....

Is it as important to have a good understanding of how program regulations work and how your farm plan will fit in, is it as important for example, as the weather? As important as what?

Actually it is the first step in a farming operation. They need to understand the government programs, how they participate, what they can expect from their participation, before they plant a seed....

What could you do for a farmer ? Why did a farmer need to have you as a consultant?

They felt more comfortable being able to talk through scenarios with someone other than a government bureaucrat. To be able to reach understandings of how this works if this happens, how do I do this, these kinds of things.

The need arose because of the changes of policy consistently at the county level. County office employees were basically told, "You don't give advice." The rationale was, you come in today and say "How do I do this? What happens if I do this?" They look in the book and say, based on this, this happens. Tomorrow, next week, next month, different guidelines come in that change that, and they forget to call you, then they will deny you a payment. You file an appeal and it is your word against theirs that they told you you could do this....

Describe for me, please, Mr. Blackley, what a farm plan is.

A farm plan is what is considered a payment limitation plan. You had to list all involvement of all partners within a farming operation that were claiming commensurate shares of that farming operation, and by "commensurate," [it meant] they had to share equally in the money, equipment, land, providing management or labor to that operation. Then, someone else made the decision if it was commensurate. If they said it is not commensurate, then you had to go in and you had to explain how it was commensurate. First at the local level, which is the county office, and then at state level if you disagree with that, and then what was at one point called the National Field Division....

During this period when these payments were so crucial, beyond crucial as you put it, to a farmer just making it, it was key obviously to maximize payments while staying current with and abiding by the federal governments regulations. That is part of what you helped farmers do as a consultant. Am I understanding that correctly?

Well you said maximize. The intent was to look at what was available if they complied, and to comply to be eligible for that. But payment limitation, a deficiency payment is just like putting a dollar bill across the street on a windy day and saying if I cross that street I can pick up that dollar. Well, it may be there when you get there, it may not. But they proceeded through their plan with the understanding that it would be there. A lot of times it is not.


BLACKLEY'S ROLE AT THE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

You worked for the Department of Agriculture, I guess prior to this time, or maybe simultaneously. What was that job and what does that entail?

I worked for the local ASCS - Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Service - which through the reorganization of the department, has been changed to the Farm Service Agency....

They are the local representatives to the Department of Agriculture. They are the ones that are supposed to work at the local level to put the policy out and oversee the local administration for the Department. There is an elected county committeeman that sits in review of policy or decisions made. I worked as a field assistant which meant I went out to the field and made field measurements, either preplanning so a man would know where to stop planting in a field to meet the program guidelines, or postplanning, which says I want to go ahead and plant it, but then I want you to come out and we will pick out areas that we want to take out... so I can... still be in compliance with the law.

So presumably it is from that experience that you derived part of your expertise as a consultant able to advise farmers on the other side.

I started reading federal policy at that time, yes.

And when did you start and stop?

Spring of 1984 through March, I believe, of 1997.


MIKE ESPY

Somewhere right about that time period, you also took on another job working part time with Congressman Espy. I don't know how involved in politics you had been in the Mississippi Delta, but as you know the Delta congressional district is a historically important one and very hotly contested for generations, but more particularly in the racial context in the last decade or two. Espy wins. Espy is the first black... from the Mississippi Delta since the... reconstruction, famously. Give me a sense, if you will, of Mike Espy the politician, his arrival on that scene there and his place in Mississippi politics. How did he strike you as a politician?

Mike struck me as a person that understood what people were going through. He was a very good listener and made a commitment to do something about what was going on. He offered me a job in the spring of 1989, after his first re-election to Congress. I accepted on a part time basis, which meant I worked for him a couple of days a week on paper.

What did he want you to do?

To deal with farmers and their problems, whether it be before the Farmer's Home Administration or the ASCS office or the Corps of Engineer on wetland violations. And just assist them. He wanted someone in the district that could be available to these people. I ended up being that person.

And by this point you had seen him through one term. You had seen him in operation as your congressman. What was his standing among the people that you knew best, the people that you rubbed elbows with and were with every day, the farmers?

After his first election there were a lot of skeptical people within not only the farm committee - "First black man from Mississippi going to Congress. He's not going to do anything for us." But the respect he got from the people of the Second District of Mississippi, he earned. There is no doubt in my mind that if he wanted to run for Congress tomorrow, the sitting congressman would have a tough time. He spent the time necessary to hear the people's problems and to try to address those problems. One of the first things he did as Secretary of Agriculture - there was a big round of foreclosures going on in the Farmer's Home Administration and he stopped that, put it on hold, and gave anybody that was in a foreclosure action the opportunity to request a Secretarial review. We brought a number of Farmer's Home people in from around the country with the understanding that they could not review any complaint from their area or state. It had to be done by someone else.

Some of which cases you all knew first hand quite well because there had been a bunch of them in Mississippi, hadn't there been?

Out of the 1400 cases, I believe, that met the requirements and time line of filing to get this review, a large number of them were Mississippi cases. Right at or a little above 50% of those cases were found that Farmer's Home had either acted incorrectly or not acted at all under the law. Nationwide, the error rate on the government was a little better than 35%, and I don't remember the exact percentage. These cases were sent back saying, "Address these issues." But because the government had strung these people out so long in these decisions and [because of] how they did it, in my mind less than 10% of them was going to be able to continue operating anyway....


ESPY IN CONGRESS

So Espy begins his first term in '87, right about the time when you were part timing it as the field man for the Department of Agriculture, and beginning his second term, which is '89, you begin part-timing for Espy as his field staff guy while doing the Department of Agriculture [job]. Is there a way you can briefly put for me what it was that Espy wanted you to do? What function he saw you serving in Mississippi?

Originally I was supposed to work two days a week, basically 18 hours a week, spending one day in the District Office which at the time was Yazoo City, and one day if possible in the Greensboro office which was an area office. That quickly eroded to the point where I was spending upwards to 30-40 hours working with his constituents.... I was basically to work Mondays and Thursdays. If they had a hearing on Wednesday, I went with them. If they had a hearing on Tuesday, I went with them. We went through a flood cycle in Mississippi, everything from Vicksburg, all the way north to Marks, Mississippi was under water and we went there with the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Agriculture and disaster loans.

So Mike Espy , the Delta farmers' congressman, meant to show himself, politically anyway, as the farmer's champion.

That is correct.

And you were to have been basically the advocate on the ground, acting in his behalf in that role. In Washington he landed a place in the Democratic Congress, a place on the House Agricultural Committee, which is certainly an important and influential position. Did you establish a relationship with Department of Agriculture people through your position working for Espy ?

No, I already had been to Washington on some appeals and stuff prior to ever going to work for Espy.

So we have you part time Department of Agriculture. We have you Espy's eyes and ears on the ground in the home office, becoming increasingly a full time job. Did you continue your consulting work during this time?

Yes.


POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST

So, on the one hand, you were earning money from the Congressman as his staff, advocating for the farmers, and from the Feds, who are the regulators, and then privately, individually in the private sector you were acting as an independent contractor, advising farmers basically on how to deal with the regulations that your other employer, the Department of Agriculture was imposing. Did it seem to you to be a conflict of interest at that time, and did you have to ask anybody about it?

Obviously you have been talking to the independent counsel, because at the time I worked for Mike Espy , I didn't have a job with the Department of Agriculture. I left them in 1987. This is 1989. I had a part time position with the Congressman.... We reached an agreement - he knew that I had clients, specifically ASCS clients - that anyone I met through his office, I would not take on a personal client for my personal business.... If anything, my personal business suffered [after I began] to work for Espy, because I was spending more and more time doing his work, in a locked-in position of 18 hours, that took more time away....

Did you and the Congressman recognize that it was something that you needed to deal with, the appearance of a conflict of interest? Working for the Congressman and working privately on behalf of farmers, essentially helping them figure out their farm plan?

I think at some point there was some statement made to the Congressman or whatever and they may have checked, they may have not. The Congressman was satisfied with the work that I was doing and had no problems with what I was doing. The employ was between me and the Congressman. To my knowledge he fully understood what I was doing and how I did it. I made $800 a month starting out for the Congressman. I spent more than that in gas to do his business.

Why would you do it then?

Because I have always been told that you help people that can't help themselves. These people were getting a total runaround from government bureaucracy and they needed help. I had no problem with that. I am proud of it. I have letters and thank you cards from people that say if you hadn't helped us we wouldn't be farming today. And I've got a lot of people that aren't farming today, but I helped them get out with respect, without having to file bankruptcy....

Had you been a particularly political person, apolitical, interested in politics? Take it or leave it? You were a Democrat.

Not was, I am a Democrat and proud of it. I didn't really get involved in politics really with my job with the Congressman. I didn't feel that I was involved with politics. There were times that politicians would upset me and I would address those issues with the politician, or at one time, I even threatened to run for the city council of Greensboro because of some stuff that was going on, but I didn't. I was satisfied with being the player that I was in the process.

Had you participated, had a role in Bill Clinton's '92 campaign?

I was involved with Farmers and Ranchers for Clinton/Gore.

A political action committee? Big time, small time? $100,000, $10,000?

Small time. I don't have that kind of money. I got out and made people understand that Bill Clinton understood what farmers were going through and that if they thought they were growing broke, if they went through four more years of George Bush, they definitely would be broke without any thought process to it.


ESPY AS SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE

And during your campaign, what was your expectation in the event of a Clinton victory for Mike Espy ?

My expectations for Mike Espy? I think everybody associated with Mike Espy was very thrilled that he got an offer to be Secretary of Agriculture, but with his relationship and ties to the governor from Arkansas, he would have been a very powerful congressman. I think he gave up a powerful position in Congress to move in and serve this administration.

He asked you to join him as his chief of staff.... Tell me how that came about and what you expected of it. It came about Christmas eve, Little Rock. He was nominated or named to be the President's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture and after that, between Christmas and New Year's, he had all of his staff into the District office which at the time was in Canton, had been moved from Yazoo City, so that he could make his statement of the fact that the President had asked him and that he had accepted to seek the nomination for Secretary of Agriculture, to go through the confirmation process, and that he would like to know what people wanted if he were to be confirmed, if they wanted to go to the Department of Agriculture. If they wanted to stay in Mississippi or stay in Washington, he would assist in trying to find them employment based on their desires. He told me, "I want you to go to Washington with me." And I said ok....

What did saying yes to Secretary Designate Espy mean for your consulting business back in Mississippi?

It meant that I needed to give up everything that I had. I got out of my consulting business. I got out of broker's business. We went to an attorney and I dissolved myself of two corporations that were farming corporations. I thought I had closed all of the loose ends and everything and had dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. I knew that we were coming into Washington, a new administration after 12 years of Republican control, that we were going to be under a microscope and that we needed to be clean. I came here and I felt as clean as anybody.


ALLEGATIONS OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Very early on in the process, you all arrive, Secretary Espy arrived, the new government is here in Washington, and the Clinton administration begins to get up and functioning. There is the process of early scrutiny in the form of press attention, as well as the confirmation process. Very early on, I gather, questions were raised about possible conflicts of interest related to your role as a farm consultant, your private business, in other words, and what you had been doing for then Congressman Mike Espy. How did these questions first present themselves in Washington?

If I remember correctly, there was a Senate staffer on the Republican side who had these concerns that Ron Blackley benefited personally from his job in your office and the Secretary asked me to respond to it. I wrote a one or two page response that basically laid out again everything that I had done, how I had done it and all and later I believed proved to the Inspector General that I didn't make money working for Mike Espy. It cost me to work for Mike Espy, but it didn't bother me.

Do you remember which Senate staffer it was?

It would have been on Lugar's staff.

Had there been any like questions from the Clinton transition team? Had they raised similar concerns?

To my knowledge, no. I have heard, I think, testimony that because of that there were questions asked but they saw my response to Espy and they were satisfied with the response.

And what was the source of this concern in the first place in your mind?

I would have to speculate on that.

Would I be wrong in guessing that it was people inside the Department of Agriculture?

I would say that it came from within the Department of Agriculture, whether it was national or state level, Mississippi, it would be speculation.

Espy comes to you and asks, "How do I respond to this?" You reassure Espy .

It was a written response for his use with the understanding that he could share it with anyone he wanted to. He presented it to the minority council and staff before his hearing started, with the understanding that they were going to question that. I believe Espy 's response to the question is "The staffer you are talking about is Ron Blackley and I am sure that he hasn't done anything wrong, or have been assured that he hasn't done anything wrong, and accept that and if I am confirmed, he is going to work for me at the Department of Agriculture."

He forwards that assurance which he had gotten from you. He is confirmed. Government is up and running, you become his chief of staff. And from what I can gather from what you have told us earlier, it was pretty hard work. It involved a lot of hours, at least five days a week. Give me a sense of what the work schedule was like.

Well I came up on January 7th and we worked through confirmation and transition that went all the way through January 20th and when a number of people were off at inaugural events, I was at transition headquarters on Vermont Avenue or in the Department trying to get things done. We walked into the Department of Agriculture on January 21st, myself and maybe four other people, and basically said, here it is, deal with it.

We had 110,000 employees and a lot of policy that you had to deal with and things had to keep moving. You couldn't shut it down, and on top of that we were hit with the E. coli outbreak in Washington State, we were hit with floods in the Midwest. We were hit with forest fires in California and across the west. It seemed that we couldn't wait for disasters to end before others were starting. We also had involvement with the plan for the Pacific Northwest where timber harvest was stalled for economic reasons... we were either in meetings or going to meetings, it seemed like 20 hours a day.

Did you feel like you were getting done any of the good that you meant to when you came?

Personally? No. I thought we were so bogged down that we would never see anything happen. One day I raised that concern with somebody and they said, "Well, we are doing a good job. You are just too close to it. You don't have a chance to stick your head up and look, but things are happening." As I look back on it now, we did more in a year than most people thought we would do in four. The problem with that is that once you make changes, you have to cement those changes, because if not, they go away. I moved from chief of staff after 13 months. Espy left after two years and a lot of things have moved back the other way. But we did some things that can never change.


ALLEGATIONS OF GIFTS FROM TYSON

In that first period, Mr. Blackley, very intense period. A lot of crises. A lot of long hours. A very intense time for you and your boss, Mike Espy. It is in this period when there began to come forward into the public arena [allegations] against your boss, the Secretary of Agriculture. One was that he was receiving gifts from Tyson. What was that about?

...I can't speculate about Mike's involvement in any of that.

But at the time, how serious a problem did it present itself as being to you all? To the Secretary and to those around him, such as yourself.

Actually I wasn't around the Secretary at the time that all that started. I had already moved over to the Chair of the Loan Resolution Task Force. I wasn't involved in the day to day meetings and briefings and stuff that [he] was going through. But it originally started as an IG investigation that ended up [turning] into an independent counsel investigation. And he, as I did going through this, felt that you answered questions, you answered them truthfully and then you were through with it. But the problem with allegations in Washington is that allegations can come faster than the truth does, and as one attorney told me going into this, truth doesn't matter any more.

But the buzz around the Department of Agriculture at the time, your visceral sense for that matter was what...?

My gut feeling at the time and still is, is given the opportunity to answer, "Espy will be ok." Same thing with me. I was not confronted by the independent counsel with the charges against me and the opportunity to respond to those, except through an indictment and a trial.

We weighed how the trial was going, made a determination they hadn't proven anything and there was no reason to put on a defense. Even though we were restricted in the defense we could put on, there was no rationale to put on one. I think everybody in the court was shocked when the jury came back. I always felt that I would be indicted just to squeeze me to come up with a lie on Espy. People said, "No, you'll never be indicted." Well I was indicted....

You got a sense that they were trying to, shall we say, shape your story in a way that would be useful to them in their case against Mike Espy.

That is all they did all along. After the third day, we were still assured that I was a witness in the Espy investigation. If the status changed, they would notify us. Well, the status changed, but they didn't notify. I was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator on another indictment that they did, mainly to keep me out there and have the opportunity to pursue me. My wife went three times before the grand jury, was to go the fourth time and a judge ruled that not only did she not have to testify against me, she didn't have to testify [about] any conversations - I believe I am correct - with third parties, or our son.

My son was taken before the grand jury twice. Once at midterm exams, he was called, had to miss exams, come up, go before the grand jury. He was asked questions on something that happened three years prior, he had no idea what they were. Two weeks later he was called back. I have read the Grand Jury transcript. He didn't change anything. He had thought about things, offered to clarify information. He walked out of the grand jury after the second appearance, was told that he was subject to perjury. The attorney, who at the time also represented me, was told that he had a conflict of interest and my son had to have another attorney. I am from Mississippi, we use family attorneys to deal with everything, unless you are in a divorce and then you want a different side to whatever you are doing. This is my first brush with this and I said, "Gosh!" and we had to go hire him an attorney....

Did you ever feel the impulse, given these pressures, particularly regarding your family, to cooperate with independent counsel?

I didn't know I could cooperate any more than what I had cooperated. I did talk to my family. We discussed it. My family is strong. They know we haven't done anything wrong. They know I haven't done anything wrong. We stand by that.


E. COLI SCARE

Allow me to step back just for a second, Ron, to the crises that you all faced in the Department of Agriculture, aside from these scandals, when you all first came in. The E. coli scare was a nightmare. That was a pretty big deal, wasn't it?

The E. coli was a bacteria outbreak on hamburger meat in the state of Washington. There was maybe 20 cases of E. coli outbreak. People had gone in the hospital. If I remember right, there was either two or three deaths related to that. We had to deal with it.... We pushed so hard to make changes within the inspection service and how things were dealt with, that we got sued by the wholesale grocers, the Beef Council.... And all we had done was say, "Put a label on the food that you sell that says, 'Wash your hands. Clean up the utensils. Cook the food thoroughly.'" These are the known things that you can do to prevent this from happening to you. We heard people that came in, a child had died in Michigan or somewhere and said, "We were on a picnic, kids were hungry, I didn't cook the burgers long enough. They were hungry, I gave it to them. If I had only known to cook it. We said, this is not this much to tell people to think. But yet we got sued for trying to do that....

There was this suggestion that with E. coli and with Jack-in-the-Box, the deaths and the illness, that this was one of moments of national panic... which resulted in a great deal of attention in Washington. "How can we deal with this and guarantee the nation's food?" The suggestion was that was in the early days and early weeks and months of the Clinton administration, you all at the Department of Agriculture focused on the beef side, but, generally speaking, were easier on the poultry side, even though poultry represents a more pronounced health risk to more Americans. The implication was that you did this, and you know the allegations, because of Clinton's order and Mike Espy 's order, Don Tyson being one of the great poultry producers in the country....

After E. coli, there was, was there not, within the Department of Agriculture, prior to your arrival, a proposal to basically tighten the health standards that regulated the poultry industry?

To my knowledge there had been work in process for a number of years to do things. The label that we did, I was told by the head of the FSIS, Food Safety and Inspection Service, that they had been trying to do that for five years, but it would get to the top and be blocked. Government is supposed to take care of people that can't take of themselves and so we moved to do that.


ALLEGATIONS ABOUT TYSON POULTRY

The Department of Agriculture, presumably, was considering a zero tolerance policy on the fecal matter as regards the poultry, which had indeed been applied because of the E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box out West to the beef industry. The allegation was that you marched in, found out that this same strict requirement was going to be applied to the poultry industry - read, "Don Tyson's industry" - and basically ordered it undone. True or not?

That is untrue.... There was an allegation, both in the newsprint and I saw on one of the news shows, that Ron Blackley, the chief of staff, told us to stop work on this, destroy documents, and because of his position, we did those things. Now, I was told who had made the statement, didn't know who it was until I saw the TV picture, and I said, I don't really even know who that is. I was in a lot of meetings. I never said that. After it was known to me who had made the allegation, my attorney wrote a letter to this person that said, "If you make this statement again, expect us to file a libel suit again you. Please have your attorney contact my attorney and let's deal with this."

Was it a misinterpretation of what you had said, because he wasn't the only one who thought they heard you say that?

Wait one minute. If that allegation was still on the table and it could be proven, do you think the independent counsel would not have indicted me for that? Those people will indict for anything and if they had that....

I take your point and don't mean to challenge your truthfulness. I want to understand this and there are a couple of factual things that bother me in this regard. One is I don't believe that the fellow to whom you refer... I don't believe he has retracted what he said.

It hasn't been said again.... He could go to the press anytime he wanted to. I am sure they would pick up and run with it.

Nonetheless, just help me to understand how it is that he came to take that meaning from whatever statements you did make.... There was a point when the new chief of staff of the Department of Agriculture discovers that there is this pending policy in the final editing stages that will put new strict controls, zero tolerance policy, [on] poultry as has been done to beef. This particular individual interprets some statement that you make as meaning, "Take that thing out of the computer," and, apparently was not alone. So I ask you two questions about that. One, what did you say that he might have misinterpreted, and two, why was he not alone in arriving at that misinterpretation of whatever it was you said?

Where are my accusers today? Where are they today...? The only meeting that I know that was specifically poultry was a zero tolerance meeting that we had that they walked through a wash process, where they remove the intestines from the chicken and they wanted to do this and all and my response was "Fine, get it final, we will take it to the Secretary." That is my only involvement that I have recollection of that specifically dealt with poultry. And Wilson Horne was not in the group, I can tell you. I have seen the man on TV. He was not in that group. What we did with the labeling was for all meat, poultry, whether it was the whole steak or ground beef or what, it had to go on there.... To my knowledge, Tyson moved right on in and did the labels....

More about the dispute over the poultry regulations.


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