Phil Mansour, Esq.


Mansour is a local Mississippi Delta lawyer who represented Keith Mitchell, Sr. in his dealings and plea agreements with Smaltz's investigation.


who is keith mitchell?

Was he a big time farmer, small farmer, middle level farmer around here?

I guess it depends on how you classify farmers. Of course, in different parts of the country, there would be classified differently. I would say Keith, of course, he doesn't own any farmland. He rents all of his land. I would say in terms of the number of acres he farms around here, he would be a mid size farmer. Not a large farmer by any stretch of the imagination. I don't remember the exact number of acres he farms. I think it's somewhere around 2,000, 2,500. Which would classify him probably as a mid size farmer.

Prosperous, was he?

Successful. I think Keith was, and is still hopefully a good farmer. You know, practiced good farming and agricultural techniques, as far as I could tell. And seemed to make a good living for him and his family, not wealthy by any means.

His standing, though, in this area, in the community and among other farmers and here in the Delta, was he known as an honorable fellow? Had he had difficulties in the past?

Yeah. I can only speak from my own personal knowledge, and as far as I've known Keith Mitchell and have represented him in various different things for the last, at least 10 years, and in that time, it's always been my opinion of him. That he was an extremely honorable man. But, you know, like I said I can only speak from my personal knowledge of him. He seemed to be well respected in the farming community, as far as his abilities are concerned. Now, whether or not, he had any, you know, personality conflicts with others, I couldn't tell you. I don't think. But in my opinion I thought he was an extremely honorable man, still do.


THE FARM PLAN-THE MISSISSIPPI CHRISTMAS TREE

In your understanding what was his aim in filing that plan?

This might be an area I might be a little uncomfortable commenting about, you know, because of this pending sentencing hearing. Certainly Mr. Mitchell accepted responsibility for his wrongdoing, and, of course, he'll be sentenced here shortly for that.

If I understand your question correctly, I think you're asking me did he--what was his intent when he put his son down as an operator of this farm? And the only way I could answer that question would be that it's my understanding from knowing this man that his intent was obviously to get an additional payment. But, also, that his intent was that his son would perform the duties that were listed of him in his farm plan. That's my understanding of what his intent was.

So that what happened was Mr. Mitchell's farming some land. He makes an application for these subsidies, files his farm plan for '92, county folks look at this. They say there are more than five pieces of this, according to the regulation this has got to be approved by the state committee.

Correct.

State committee gets it, looks at it, sees the student thing, that sends up red flags. They look at it a little closer, they turn him down.

Correct.

He gets a chance to appeal. He appeals back at the state board. This time he has Mr. Blackley with him. The state board reconsiders its decision, and, again, turns him down. At that point he goes to Washington.

That's correct.

At that point he goes to Washington, and it goes basically through the Washington review piece. They look at him. They hear his appeal. They say, "No." And it's over. And then it comes back to life, and what brings it back to life, again, my understanding is what turns out to be, you know, a semi significant, what you might call personnel shift, which is to say Bill Clinton goes in the White House, Mike Espy becomes Secretary of Agriculture.

Local consultant, Ron Blackley, becomes Chief of Staff of the Department of Agriculture, handpicks this case of one of his former clients and walks it into the review process. And that is where Washington begins to turn it around.

There was an appeal...And Ron Blackley was representing, it's my understanding, Keith Mitchell, at that hearing.

I am not sure that the review process--it's my understanding now, and I apologize--I may have my dates wrong, Peter, but it's my understanding that when the National Appeals Board denied Mr. Mitchell's payment that there was an immediate letter written to either the Secretary or someone under the Secretary, asking that that decision be reviewed. Let me put it this way, Mike Espy was the Secretary of Agriculture at that point. How much time transpired between the initial NAB decision, and Mr. Mitchell's request for a review. I don't know. It seems to me that Mr. Espy was in office when NAB made their initial determination.

In any case, to put it on a simpler term, but the time favorable decisions started being made in Mr. Mitchell's case--

Mike Espy was the Secretary of Agriculture.

One of the things I'd really like to ask just to help me understand how things work around here. Before Clinton, before Espy, before any of that, there was a relationship between Mr. Mitchell in this process and this fellow, Ron Blackley. Blackley comes with Mitchell to Jackson when they're reviewing one of these decisions. And he did because he helped to prepare the farm plan.

It's my understanding that's correct.

What is that? Who is a Ron Blackley, a lawyer, an agent? What does he do?

Ron Blackley started out with government. He started out with the local ASCS office. Ron Blackley was--

Department of Agriculture?

With the Department of Agriculture. He was the CO for Washington County.

He was the federal Department of Agriculture's man on the scene.

For Washington County. Each local ASCS office, not every county in the state has an ASCS office, and some of the counties are combined. But each ASCS office has an operations man, a head operator, and his job is to review farm plans. So Ron Blackley got his knowledge of the farm program through his years of experience with the Ag Department and the local ASCS, which is now FSA. And he left that employ, and went into private agricultural consulting, years before he went to work for Mike Espy. And it's my understanding that when he met Mike Espy, Ronnie Blackley was in private agricultural consulting.

And I'm speculating on a lot of this, but it's my understanding that part of his duties, as a private agricultural consultant was to assist local farmers in preparing their annual farm programs, their plans. As you may have already gathered, this farm program constitutes a major part of the farming operation now. Making sure it's done correctly, filing it on time, making sure all of the paperwork is in order. It's become part of farming. It's as much a part of farming as it is plowing that land out there now. And a lot of farmers just don't have the time, nor do they want--have the expertise to fool with it. So there go Ronnie Blackley, and he had some expertise in the matter. So he assisted a number of farmers, I understand, in setting up their farm plans.


The Independent Counsel Comes to Town

Now, the world turns and time passes and the next thing you know there are newspaper reports, followed by the appointment of an independent counsel to look into allegations against Secretary Espy. And this is an eventuality, which soon comes to have an impact on the life of Keith Mitchell and his family. Tell me your understanding of how that inquiry landed at the front door of Mr. Mitchell. What was it like?

At some point in 1994-'95, I don't remember exactly when, Mr. Mitchell was approached at his home--called I think by two federal agents. The federal agents said "Under the temporary employ of the office of the independent counsel, investigating Mike Espy." Asked if they could interview him. He invited them to their home. Shortly thereafter he was a target in this investigation.

So Mr. Mitchell thought that they were there just to do what they said they were there to do, which was--

Talk to him about Mike Espy.

And Mitchell knew, of course, that he had no direct relationship to any of Espy's known criminal exposures.

I'm assuming he did. There was no hesitation. He had no reason not to talk to them, and he welcomed them into his home freely.

Did he call a lawyer?

Did not. He did not.

He sat down on his own with these agents, and just started--

That's something I would never recommend anyone do is sit down with any federal agent, and give a statement, regardless of how innocent you may be. But that's another story.

How about his family. His sons were eventually sort of ensnared by this thing. Were they ever visited by the independent counsel or by any of the federal agents?

Oh, sure. His eldest son, who was also indicted, Brook Keith Mitchell, Jr. in this action was approached at the same time he was living in Jackson at the same time. And at the same time Mr. Mitchell was being interviewed by the two agents, his son Brook Keith Mitchell, Jr. was approached by federal agents in Jackson. To my knowledge that's probably the only time he was ever directly approached by federal agents, his son. Kevin never was.

What happened?

Well, they scared the hell out of him. That should go without saying. He called his father. And called him at home, and actually the agents were still there in his home, when he called. He told him, "There's two agents here wanting to talk to me, what's this about?" I don't think they ever actually interviewed his son.

Was Mr. Mitchell surprised to hear this?

He was a little shocked. He was upset.

What happens with your client?

He's indicted, and his son is indicted.

His son too?

On the multiple count indictments. Now, as you already know, we never felt that the Blackley jurisdiction expansion, included Keith Mitchell. We didn't feel it was sufficient to include Keith Mitchell. So we vigorously contested whether or not the independent counsel had jurisdiction to indict Keith Mitchell under the Espy independent counsel. And there were a number of appeals made prior to trial to the court of appeals, based upon that position. The federal judge felt they did. And the court of appeals basically didn't address the issue. Said it was an issue that should be addressed on appeal, if he were convicted. So we never really got an answer to that question, whether or not his jurisdiction was proper in this matter.

What was the circumstance, what were the pressures that I guess led to the plea agreement?

Well, I don't know that I really need to get into that issue. Mr. Mitchell obviously pled guilty. Mr. Mitchell has accepted responsibility.

Mr. Mitchell, Sr.?

Mr. Mitchell, Sr.

Did his son have to plead?

No. His son was represented by another attorney, but basically his son's plea arrangement involved a diversion program, with no criminal--in effect, he agreed to enter into a federal diversion program, which basically means you don't have a record. You perform certain hours, X number of hours of community service, then you have no criminal record. The charges basically are dismissed, for all practical purposes. Mr. Mitchell, of course, hasn't been sentenced yet. But, you know, he decided shortly before trial that it was in his best interests obviously to plead guilty. His best interests and his families' best interest, I guess I should say. He did, and he now accepts responsibility, full responsibility for his actions.

And now we just wait and see what kind of punishment will be levied(?).

So you have two indictments; father and son. The son's resolution was less drastic than that which faced his father. But the father had to plead guilty to what? Felony?

Four counts of felony.

And now awaits sentencing. What has the effect been on that family?

Based upon my observations, it's been devastating. Mr. Mitchell's emotional and physical health is--he's had--I think he's probably lost anywhere from 60 to 90 pounds through this process. He's sought and has been treated, and is continuing it's my understanding he's still being treated by a psychiatrist. Taking medication for depression. The effect on his marriage, and his relationship with his children has been devastated. He's been an emotional and physical wreck, not to mention the financial setback that he has incurred as a result of this. He's trying to continue farming. Hopefully, he'll be able to get back on his feet. Of course, we hope that he is able to continue farming. We don't know what the outcome of the sentencing hearing is going to be. In addition to the potential of having to do time, which we hope doesn't happen. We don't know. You know, there's the potential of a substantial financial fine that could be levied. That depends on a lot of different factors.

So this thing still yet could reap more financial--there's no question it will reap more financial havoc on him, more physical and emotional setbacks also. He has had a rough go of it.

Putting yourself on the other side, can you imagine--put it another way. What is the justification in your mind for going after and indicting a Mississippi farmer, who has only been to Washington, D.C. twice in his life. When, in fact, what the purpose of the inquiry is is a member of the President's Cabinet.

That's a very good question. Obviously the motivation for any of these indictments, leading up to the Espy indictment is presumably to build a case against Mike Espy. And the question is how much is too far? How far out do you need to go, and how far down that totem pole do you need to go to build a case against your primary target? Against Mike Espy, which is why you were appointed in the first place. Mike Espy or whoever it may be.

 


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