Interview Ron Blackley

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ALLEGATIONS ABOUT THE MITCHELL FARM

Just in your first two years, you arrive in Washington and you have to first of all provide assurances to Mike Espy that there are no conflicts of interest. You then have to deal with this whole set of assertions which originated within the Department about whether or not you had tried to hold the Department back on poultry safety regulations. And then came the issues of some of your former clients from your consulting business in Mississippi. One in particular is what I would like to talk to you about. The Mitchell family. Keith Mitchell. A cotton farmer is he?

Cotton, rice, soybeans, wheat, grain.

Where about, in the Delta?

Grain bowl area, yes.

Big farmer?

He is probably big compared to the majority of farmers, but he is not as big as the biggest farmer in the Delta, no. He is moderate size compared to some of the bigger operations.

Family farm, would you put it?

Family farm, everybody involved in his operation was family members, yes.

Wealthy man is he?

No. He wasn't when he started and he sure is not wealthy now.

In fact, he doesn't own the land, does he?

No, he rents.

What was it that Keith Mitchell came to you for, and what was it that you were able to provide for him as a service?

I had been dealing with Keith since the late 80's on farm operating plans, his payment limitation plans, and that is basically my involvement with Keith, other than I knew Keith. Keith Mitchell gave the original fundraiser within the agricultural community for Mike Espy when he was running for Congress. Keith took a lot of abuse from other white farmers for doing that for Espy. Took a lot of abuse from the Republican appointees, from within the Department in the state, for doing that for Espy, because Espy was running against a Republican Congressman.

Webb Franklin.

That is correct, who said he had had all the farmers he could stand at a meeting in Cleveland, Mississippi at Delta State University, with FMHA national director. It just so happened he was overheard in the hall saying it. A lot of people were upset with that.

So there is a hint here, which I think a part of what you are getting at, is that Keith Mitchell may have suffered in the Department of Agriculture ruling on his farm plan for political reasons, at least partly.

It is not may have, he did.

Help me understand what you did. You crafted the farm plan, basically, that was rejected by the Department of Agriculture....

The process and the policy, basically, if I remember right, was operating the same as he had the prior year. Normal procedure within the Department of Agriculture, within the ASCS office at the time, was that a determination is made at the local level, the county office, and then can be reviewed at the state level, and the national level reserves a right to review what is done.

In the case of Mitchell, the State ASCA Committee had determined that anybody with 5 or more members in partnership would be reviewed at the state level without a determination at the local level.... He applied. We went back and he explained the situation and they denied him again. He appealed to the NAD or the National Appeal Division and it took a while to get a response. [I talked to] someone that dealt with the appeals that said the response that you are going to get is not what our ruling was, but what ASCS wants it to be, which was a denial. I was basically assured that Mr. Mitchell had won the appeal, but that he would never see that.

By whom?

Someone that had the opportunity to review and watch the process at the national level. He resubmitted to the Administrator.... And the Administrator had in fact been spoken to by you, hadn't he?

To my knowledge, I can tell you that a letter had been sent to the Administrator, but whether there was any face to face or speaking to, I don't recollect any.

You did urge that these cases be given a new look.

Yes, and would do that today.

Why?

Because at the time, [from] what I had seen and what the policy was..., Mr. Mitchell complied with the policy and met every determination necessary to my knowledge.

After you became chief of staff to the Secretary of Agriculture, you wanted to see that these cases were at the very least given another shot at the review process.

Actually these cases were already in the review process before I ever became [chief of staff to the] Secretary of Agriculture. The day of us walking into the Department of Agriculture, January 21, 1993, I signed letters that were prepared by the government of the USDA Ethics office that said I no longer am involved with these, and removed myself and continue to this day to be removed from those cases.

You inquired after them?

Inquired? I would inquire where the process was with the understanding that it didn't matter to me how they came out, but knowing that that step had to be taken for them to be able to move to the next level, which, if they could pursue, could be before a judge.

Why was it important to you to see that these cases moved through that process?

Because the rulings were wrong.... And because I had been told by someone that had been involved that said, "You are not going to see what the outcome should be, you are going to see what they give you...."

Did you ever suggest, instruct, hint at, the outcome you would prefer to see?

No, sir.

Can you in retrospect see that even the remotest degree of interest from the chief of staff, Department of Agriculture, would at least imply an interest in the outcome?

Knowing what I know today, knowing what I have been through this morning, I would do it again. Because justice should be served and they were denied without any credible reason, basically just stamped denied. I would do it today. I would walk in that Department and file an appeal on the circumstances as I knew them at those times, today.

So you believe that a miscarriage of justice was done... that had political cause, and the remedy was political?

I believe that the National Appeal Division was talking to the State and there was behind-the-scenes involvement to deny. I really do believe that. You go into a meeting at the National Appeal Division, there is supposed to be a hearing office that hears the facts from the appellant, and when you walk into the room and these people have never been to Washington, and there is eight or ten people around the room from the ASCS office, National Appeals and all, that sit there to find out what this person has done so that if it wasn't in the regulation, they could change the regulation and the policy so that it would make it impossible for him to be able to operate the way he was operating. I have seen that happen. I have been to Washington. I have been through the appeal, and almost before you could get back to Mississippi, the policy was in the ASCS office that says, "You can't do this."

Back on the state level, when it skips over the county level, because it had surpassed the five commensurate principal threshold.... were you party to that process? You walked in with Mitchell? And basically defended the plan?

Yes. I did maybe three or four appeals that day. Some were through private consulting. Some were through the Congressional office and there was a guy that was in the hall that I knew from Natchez that says, "We got this case, how do you deal with this?" And they asked me to go back in with them. Totally unrelated, but I was there. Any time anybody asked me for help, if I could provide it, I did it....

And you would have done it again? I am talking about after you were chief of staff. You would have gone in and made sure this process of review was progressing.

Sure, I would do it for anybody. Anybody that called that office....

One last thing on that issue, though. Of the five cases that were re-reviewed, that were turned down, [and] were reconsidered after you all arrived, [they all] were in fact reversed favorably toward your former clients; that is five for five. That was batting a thousand....

Actually of the five, one of them I didn't even know. If my recollection of it is right, when the Inspector General asked this guy if he knew me and had paid me anything to have his review done, he says "No, but if I had known I could have, I would have sent him a check a long time ago." Didn't even know the person. I have later come to find out that it was an appeal that was in the Secretary's office and a decision letter had been originated for the Secretary's signature. I knew nothing about it.

One of the four remaining was a Mississippi resident, but involved a Louisiana case on a disaster payment on pecans. The man had a clear lease on the land for the year that the disaster occurred....

Hadn't that farmer been a client of yours?

No, he is a pecan farmer.


INSPECTOR GENERAL'S REPORT

The Department of Agriculture's Inspector General, responding presumably to the press reports, commences his own inquiry. A couple of things about that. [What was] your understanding at the time, [of] what... the Department of Agriculture's Inspector General was trying to find out? What was that meant to determine?

They wanted to know if I had received monetary gain for my position outside of my salary. I want to say that the whole investigation went on about between five and six months.

Did you meet with the Inspector General?

I met with the investigator, maybe four, five, six or seven times. Whenever he wanted to meet, I met.

The inquiry went on for six months. You met with the investigator half a dozen times. What were their conclusions?

To this day, I don't know. But let me explain to you about the investigation. They asked for information. They asked questions. I answered. I gave them about seven years worth of tax returns. I gave them all the bank records that I had. I signed waivers for them to get any bank record that I had signature authority on....

To my knowledge, to this day, I don't know what the final report said. The independent counsel has blocked us from getting that report.... I do know that I walked in to see the Acting Inspector General and said, "I would like to see the report," and [they said], "It is going to Justice because of the Espy deal," and I said, "Well, what is the outcome?" I was told that basically if nobody is knocking on your door, you don't have anything to worry about. That was good enough for me, I am not worried about it. I wish I had had it during the trial because I think it explains a lot of things.


INDEPENDENT COUNSEL INVESTIGATION

Of course somebody did come knock at your door, the independent counsel, eventually. I would like to ask you about how that undertaking, Don Smaltz's investigation of Mike Espy and its extension to you, first became manifest to you all. When did you first hear that Justice was going through that process by which it decides whether or not to seek the appointment of an independent counsel regarding Mike Espy?

Say August 1994.

What were you hearing?

Just stuff that was in the paper. The fact that they were reviewing different things and looking and he was a covered person under the Act and they would have to make a decision.

Were you sophisticated enough in the ways of Washington and the ways of how the Department of Justice works to know that there was likely a debate going on with the Department of Justice, that there was such a thing such as the Public Integrity section, that there might be people advocating the pro and the con side?

No, I had no knowledge of the works of Justice.

Have you since gained an insight?

No, I still don't have any insight into the Department. I do know that basically that, if you read some of the articles, that Mr. Smaltz in his own right has re-written the law. He has stated that he doesn't have to follow Justice guidelines.

But did you have a sense then, or do you have one now, that there were people inside the Department of Justice, who in the ordinary course of events, would have a say in whether or not these matters would be prosecuted, who were against, for example, the appointment of an independent counsel in the case of Espy?

I have no knowledge of that.... As regard to my case, my understanding of the way that the process works... [is] that if there is a review by the Inspector General, and they find something, then they give the person the opportunity to correct the deficiencies. If those deficiencies are not corrected, then they would send it to Justice for their review.... I have read that they elected not to pursue mine....

So your assertion is that, as far as you know, that the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture looked at your case and what, exonerated you?

I don't know if you can say "exonerated" me, because my understanding is that they didn't come with a final report, because I never saw it. In the normal process, once they complete it, I would have been notified in some form or fashion what the report stated, whether there were deficiencies that I had to deal with or there was nothing to deal with.

In the event, there was the appointment of an independent counsel sought, and the appointment was made, and the independent counsel chosen was Donald Smaltz, what did you know about him...? How did you come to perceive him?

Let me address that this way. Mr. Starr has been on TV and Mr. Starr has made a lot of statements and he is played a lot in the press. People think that he is doing a lot of things that shouldn't be done. But he is out in the open with it. At least he is playing the press and letting everybody know where he is. Mr. Smaltz doesn't do that. Mr. Smaltz does his in the background. He doesn't get out and run the press, but he can ruin people's lives real quick, and he has done it. He has made statements in Mississippi about me, about my friends, about relationships - "you don't want to be involved with these people." He himself may not have made those, but he has people that work for him that have run all over Mississippi, harassed people. Threatened them.

Why would Donald Smaltz want to ruin you?

At the time they were pressuring me to lie on Mike Espy. Plain and simple.

Help me with this, please, Mr. Blackley. Let's clarify.... You were investigated by various sources, from the press, to Grand Juries, to the Inspector General, Department of Agriculture. You were charged with a crime, you were tried, you were convicted by a jury, have now been sentenced by a federal judge.... You face[d] this array of charges from the Mitchell farm business, the E. coli poultry protection business, and so on. You maintain your complete absolute innocence in all of these things. But then where does this stuff come from? How do you explain that?

Allegations in this town don't have to have fact. The entire case that was presented by the independent counsel... were a lot of half truths, were selected words out of pages of words.... But in everything I have done, it says "to the best of your knowledge." And to the best of my knowledge, at the time that I did the things that I am accused of doing wrongly, it was to the best of my knowledge. I have to stand with that. I told the judge this morning, I accept total responsibility. But I did what I knew, how I knew to do it....

You will remember there was a moment when Mike Espy was being pretty much hounded by the press, and it was pretty clear that his was not a political stock in which you would want to necessarily invest, and the White House sort of cut him loose and he resigned. How did you feel at that time about how that whole episode with Espy was handled by his political friends?

You know, there was a lot of conversation back and forth and all, and I feel that the way things came down and the way they took place was carefully weighed. I think to this day that the President still thinks that Mike Espy did a good job. Would continue to do a good job. But there is a political scenario that had to be played out too. Possibility that the game was just too expensive....

In your dealings with the independent counsel, you have not, what they would term, cooperated. What is it you think they wanted from you, Donald Smaltz and his team?

Something I didn't have to give them. They wanted information that I didn't have.

Is that to say you believe they wanted you to lie?

They have never asked me to lie, but my gut feeling is that that is the only definition for cooperation. I spent the time with them. I gave them documents they asked for. Went to the expense to have bank records that they already had and everything redone, and resent to them and they would continue to ask for more and more documentation, and then say they didn't have it. We would continue to provide. My understanding of the definition of cooperating is that I have done all that. I don't know what they could mean beyond what I have already done.

It was made plain to you, I gather, at some point, that your family, your son, for example, could possibly face criminal exposure because of this. What was that about, do you think, from the independent counsel's view? What were they trying to do?

I think they were trying to do the same thing with me that they had done with Keith Mitchell. I don't believe, and I can't say, and shouldn't speculate on it, that Mr. Mitchell would have ever reached a plea agreement had his son not been involved, a young man that had not been married that long, had a small baby, was fixing to have to go through all this. And he was trying to protect his family.

He thought that they could have that same outcome with you and with this family.

Yeah, I think they thought it worked one time and they were going to do it again.

Driving a wedge between you and your family.

That was a statement that was made in the presence of two attorneys that represented my son... that they had no interest in my son, they were only using him to drive a wedge in the Blackley family. They assumed they could scare my son to come up and say anything, and my son spoke the truth....

Espy is facing an independent counsel, you are watching, presumably more or less from the sidelines. Did it strike you early on, immediately, that "Espy has an independent counsel, that is going to involve me?"

No.

And in fact, the independent counsel wasn't specifically at the beginning tasked with inquiring into any of your business, was he?

That is correct. That happened maybe 12-18 months into the investigation, when then sought the expansion.

And you sense of that expansion, how it occurred, was it something that the Attorney General of the United States and the Department of Justice endorsed? Did they fight it? What is your feeling about that?

My understanding is that they denied it. Mr. Smaltz went to the three judge panel. They gave him a hearing. Justice went and filed pleadings to not do it....

So Justice opposed his effects to expand.

They opposed and at a later hearing not long ago, Mr. Smaltz in an 8 page press release after my conviction, and then before Congress, stated that Justice obstructed his investigation of my case and allegations from that side are not hard to get, all you have to do is look at the paper. But it was opposed and then, even with the expansion, I think the wording on the expansion was to cover me and my involvement as to whether or not I improperly interceded in any appeals....

Speaking of which, you were [never] literally charged with all of this business about intervening on behalf of your former clients in Mississippi and not about the E. coli, protecting the poultry and Tyson.

That has never been mentioned in my case....


ACTUAL CHARGES AGAINST BLACKLEY

And not in fact using your position as quid pro quo to enrich yourself, or even to enhance your bank account, but rather specifically, with what were you charged?

A false statement on filing an SF278, which is a financial disclosure for 1994, and would not take into consideration that the 1993 one covered the moneys or parts of the moneys that they claimed were hidden. False statement to the USDA Office of Inspector General because I cooperated with them and provided them with all the documents. If I had anything to hide, surely I wouldn't have just given my life over to him and all these documents, but I did. The third one was after the Mitchell indictment since I was mentioned as an unindicted co-conspirator. I had a top secret security clearance at the Agency for International Development.

They asked did I have any involvement. Had I received any money from Mitchell for doing this, or any remuneration and as I say... maybe I misread definitions in the book, but it says "moneys for services rendered," and I haven't done that since I went to work for the Department of Agriculture in January, 1993.

You did, however, after the calendar date of beginning work as a federal employee here in Washington through the Department of Agriculture, receive money from these sources in Mississippi.

On checks, the majority were checks from Mississippi rice services, signed by Charles Fuller, who is the person I gave the company to.

For services that you had rendered.

For commissions on rice that was sold in 1992, but the moneys were just coming in. There was a loan from Charles and Anita Fuller, and the check was a bank check to my wife. That is the majority of the money. At any point that they wanted to set down and go through this, I think we could have gone through this. Those checks were written in Mississippi, given to my wife, deposited in a joint checking account in Mississippi. As far as I know, I hadn't written a check, signed a check on that account in 1993.

So you didn't know that that money had come in?

I am saying that my statements on all of these documents were to my knowledge.

Did you know that that money had come in in 1993?

I anticipated moneys coming in in the way that I filed my 1993 estimated earned income. Did I know the moneys actually came at the time, no. I was expecting the money. I had turned the business over to a friend, would never question it. And didn't have time to question it. We were all over the board in what we were dealing with.


BLACKLEY'S CONVICTION

But in making the case against you regarding the false statement, the prosecutor essentially had to make the larger case. Did you ever get the sense that what the prosecutors were really doing was telling the jury, "The false statement is what he is charged with here, but what this case really is about is about this guy continuing to serve two masters, his private interest as well as the federal government. It is really about his misuse of his position, essentially an abuse of power."

That is what they attempted to make the case out to be, but they didn't have that case and that is the reason they didn't charge with me with that.

Do you think that is what the jury heard?

Yes, that is exactly what they heard.... I don't know what the jury believed. I know that some of them slept through testimony, and as I say, it was boring. But we made a motion to interview jurors and it was denied. Because we would like to know, I personally would like to know what they heard, because what I heard from the independent counsel didn't convict me. The judge says, "You can't consider that an indictment is actual proof." Is that what they used? They didn't present evidence that even come close to saying that I have done anything wrong.

The jury plainly believed that they did and the judge seems to concur.

Seems to have up to now, yes.

What kind of defense did you mount against that?

None.

Why?

I made the decision that one, they hadn't proven the case. And two, I didn't want the people that were going to get up and testify on my behalf to go through what I had gone through.... Anybody that got up on that stand and says something good about me was going to be harassed, and could very possibly end up being where I am, and I didn't want that....

Just a very short while ago, an hour-and-a-half or so, [you] stood in the court room of federal Judge Royce Lamberth and heard him not only give you the maximum plus..., but he seemed rather intent on lecturing you, saying that you were an egregious case, that you were an embarrassment and should be seen as such by the Administration, that this government that you left Mississippi to come serve should be ashamed of you. What is your reaction to that?

My reaction is that if he is going to set me as the baseline for criminal conduct, then he just moved a lot of people into the criminal side of this country. I know what I have done and it is not criminal.

It is not criminal in your mind. On a scale between abjectly criminal, egregiously criminal, as the judge suggests, and snow white innocence, looking back objectively, how do you see whatever it was that you allow that you did? Innocent mistakes? Bad judgment?

I still have not been pointed out where the mistake is. I did, to the best of my knowledge and the best of my ability at the time..., what I knew to be true and correct.... I stand by that today, as I told the judge this morning. I accept full responsibility for what I have done, but even knowing what happened this morning, going back to where these things took place, I don't know how I could have done them any different that what I did.

So [you are] a complete innocent who has been victimized by a miscarriage of justice?

Been victimized by overreach of the independent counsel. I stand up and take responsibility for what I do.... Lily white? No, I don't think anybody who woke up this morning is lily white. But given the scenario under which the guidelines and policy are sitting now, if anybody had come to me and said, "What about this?" I would have dealt with it. They could have accepted the answer or they could discard it, they could have moved on to the next level or whatever. But I have answered every question, just like I am answering yours, that had ever been asked of me. If I knew the answer, I gave it to them. If I didn't, I told them I didn't and I wouldn't speculate. But the independent counsel never talked to me. Never questioned anything in this indictment during the whole time. A nine count indictment, I saw this stuff listed, but I also saw that they claimed I had a million, four million, five in income in 1992, so if you can believe that, you can believe this other.

What was your income level in '91, '92?

I grossed between $30-35,000. That was with the rice government, Ron Blackley and Associates, congressional income, and after expenses. I don't know, $20,000. It didn't take a lot of money for me.

Between $30-40,000 gross from your private business. And from the Department of Agriculture and working for Congress?

At the time we came up here, I was making $1,000 a month.

So that is only another $12,000. So you were making under $50,000 a year total?

Yeah. I did a lot of volunteer work. I have no regrets to that at all.

Do you mind my asking... you have a very well-regarded lawyer here and high regard is measured at least in one way in this town at this moment by high hourly rates. How in the world does a guy who made $50 grand a year and spent much of the last couple of years of his life defending himself, pay for legal fees, among other things?

You know, I ran out of money a long time ago and I have to say that counsel that I have now and those representing my son, are working off of the understanding that I have a legal defense fund that was set up in December or maybe a little before that. An attorney in Mississippi is overseeing it. I wish I had a 1-800 number to hold up so people know where to call and send money. But I have always paid my bills and I believe that these people understand that I committed to do that.... I have a tremendous debt and to be able to pay that, then I have to win in the appeal.... I should be in bankruptcy right now, but I don't believe in that. I believe in paying your debts. I was raised that way. It may take a little while, but we'll pay them.

 


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