Rick Young was a producer of and Jim Mokhiber provided reporting and research
for "Secrets of an Independent Counsel."
In September, 1994, about one month after Ken Starr was appointed to the
Whitewater investigation, Donald Smaltz arrived from California to oversee an
independent counsel inquiry into then-Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. The
mandate from the court, as requested by Attorney General Janet Reno, was to
examine whether Espy had unlawfully accepted gifts or gratuities from
organizations or individuals with business before his Department.
Allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced in a March, 1994 Wall Street Journal
article, which questioned whether the Arkansas-based agribusiness giant Tyson Foods was receiving
preferential treatment from Espy's Agriculture Department. The article noted
that Espy had been "feted" by Don Tyson at a football game, and outlined
several regulatory decisions that seemed to benefit Tyson Foods. Subsequent
press reports raised further questions about Espy's relationship with companies
regulated by the Department, including his acceptance of private air travel and
tickets to other sporting events.
The news reports prompted an investigation by the Agriculture Department's
Inspector General, who, in the spring of 1994, filed a report with the Department of
Justice. At Justice, lawyers spent several months reviewing the matter to
determine whether an independent counsel investigation was warranted. Attorneys
at the DOJ were divided on the question. Career lawyers with the Public
Integrity section argued against an independent counsel, while the FBI pushed
for the appointment of one. In the end, Reno, who had vigorously pushed for
reauthorization of the independent counsel law, requested that the Special
Division appoint an independent counsel.
Within a month of Smaltz's arrival in Washington, D.C., Mike Espy announced his
intention to resign at the end of the year. Smaltz let it be known, however, that neither Espy's
decision to resign, nor his efforts to reimburse Tyson subsequent to the news
reports, would erase the seriousness of the initial violations, if proven true.
Early on, Smaltz focused his investigation on Tyson Foods, seeking to determine
whether the company had a practice of providing gratuities to government
officials. In searching for inside information about the company's activities,
Smaltz discovered a former Tyson airplane pilot named Joe Henrickson, who had
unsuccessfully sued the company for wrongful termination. Henrickson told Smaltz an
explosive story about having transported envelopes of cash from Tyson corporate
officers to then-Governor Bill Clinton. Henrickson also told the story to Time
Magazine, which reported in December 1994, that Smaltz had granted Henrickson
immunity in exchange for his cooperation.
Publication of Henrickson's allegations, as well as unguarded comments by Smaltz that
the pilot's charges had "the ring of truth" to them, sparked an immediate and
blistering response from both Tyson Foods
and the White House. Tyson blasted Smaltz for engaging in a "witchhunt"
and White House Counsel Abner Mikva sent a letter admonishing Smaltz for
his public comments, as did the President's personal attorney, David Kendall.
The war against this particular independent counsel, Donald Smaltz, had
Smaltz sought cover at the Department of Justice, where he asked Janet Reno to
bless an expansion of his investigation into broader questions about the
political dealings of Tyson Foods, including Henrickson's allegations about
"cash-to-Clinton." The Justice Department, however, believed Smaltz's probe
was moving beyond its original mandate
and, therefore, into investigative matters that would more properly be handled
by the Department. Smaltz's request for expansion was denied. But the
independent counsel was not deterred.
Despite Reno's denial of expansion, Smaltz continued to investigate a broad
range of Tyson related matters, and eventually, even called Joe Henrickson
before a grand jury. Smaltz's relentlessness persuaded Tyson Foods lobbyist, Tom
Green, to send Reno a strongly-worded denunciation of Smaltz. Green asked Reno
to "remove" Smaltz. The show-down culminated in a July 18, 1995 meeting at the
Department of Justice where Smaltz was told by the Attorney General to confine
his investigation of Tyson to the allegations about Espy. It would not be
Smaltz's last run-in with Reno.
In pursuing the initial allegations, Smaltz also homed in on questions about
the Department of Agriculture's decision in early 1993 to shelve regulations
that would tighten the inspection standards at poultry operations. In
particular, Smaltz wanted to know more about a sequence of meetings in early 1993 that
involved Espy, Tyson Foods lobbyist, Jack Williams, and Espy's chief of staff,
Ron Blackley. To get answers about Espy, Smaltz went after Blackley. But in
going after Blackley, Smaltz again found himself face-to-face with the
Department of Justice.
This time, instead of seeking Reno's approval to investigate
Blackley, Smaltz took his request straight to the Special Division. In an
unusual and precedent setting judicial clash, the DOJ objected to Smaltz's
reach for Blackley. In particular, the DOJ opposed Smaltz's plan to investigate whether
Blackley, as chief of staff, had improperly intervened in decisions about farm
subsidy payments to his former clients. The DOJ argued that Smaltz had again
wandered beyond his jurisdictional charter and, moreover, that he needed
approval from the Attorney General to proceed. The court, however, rebuffed the Justice
Department's opposition and ruled in
In addition to pursuing Tyson Foods and Ron Blackley, Smaltz zeroed in on
Espy's relationship with several other organizations and individuals with
business before the Department. He also investigated campaign contributions
provided to Espy's brother, Henry, who ran unsuccessfully to fill the
Secretary's former Congressional seat. To date, Smaltz's investigation has
resulted in a more than a dozen criminal convictions or pleas including a plea from Tyson
Foods on one felony count of illegally giving $12,000 in gratuities to Espy.
In connection with the plea agreement, Tyson has agreed to pay a $6 million
fine. Former Chief of Staff Ron Blackley was convicted for making false statements and sentenced to
27 months in prison, which he is appealing.
In a significant setback to Smaltz's investigation, an appellate court reversed a key
gratuities conviction against Sun-Diamond Growers of California. The Appeals Court
for the District of Columbia rejected Smaltz's argument that the receipt of gratuities alone,
absent any demonstrated quid pro quo, is illegal. As of December 1998, the case is on appeal to the
US Supreme Court.
As for Mike Espy, the original target of the independent counsel probe, he was indicted on 39 counts
of corruption in August 1997. He pled guilty to one count, and the District Court judge threw out eight
others. On December 2, 1998, a federal jury acquitted him of the remaining 30 charges, ending Smaltz's
four-year, $17 million investigation. The charges were based
on Smaltz's allegations that Espy illegally received approximately $34,000
worth of gifts and gratuities, including tickets to sporting events, lodging,
airfare and a scholarship provided to his girlfriend. Smaltz tried much of the
two month case himself, presenting 70 witnesses over the course of two months.
Espy himself did not take the stand, and his lawyers presented no witnesses to
testify in his defense. In closing, they argued to the jury that the gifts he had
received were not illegal in that they stemmed from longstanding friendships with
members of the industries he regulated, and that there was no proof that the
gifts influenced him in any official decision making. In a statement issued by
the White House after Espy's acquittal, President Clinton said: "I am
heartened that he has, as he said, emerged from this ordeal stronger. I hope that
as he moves forward he will continue his notable record of service to the
country." Smaltz stated that, although he was disappointed in the verdict, he believed the
investigation served an important purpose:
"If the investigation and prosecutions by our office dissuade corporations
from giving gifts to their regulators -- or the regulators from accepting
gifts from those who are regulated -- I believe that the costs we have
incurred, and the efforts we have expended, are worth the price."