Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, the highest-ranking member of the Clinton administration to be charged with a crime, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court to charges that he accepted more than $35,000 worth of sports tickets and other gifts from agriculture businesses he was charged with regulating.
Espy, who resigned from the Cabinet in 1994, entered the plea at a hearing before Judge Ricardo Urbina.
“May it please the court, I am not guilty,” Espy said in a firm and loud voice. Urbina said he would probably set a trial date after a court hearing Dec. 15.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Espy, who said he was now practicing law in Mississippi, his home state, told reporters outside the courthouse that he was confident of acquittal.
“Through this trial, the public will now hear my side of the story,” he said. “Although some have called it a witch hunt, I have faith. I know I will prevail in this latest challenge to my life.”
Espy also made a point of saying, “No favor to anyone on my part is alleged in this indictment.”
But independent prosecutor Donald C. Smaltz has emphasized that the law explicitly forbids a Cabinet officer from accepting any favors from those he is charged with regulating, even if there is no quid pro quo.
Although Smaltz declined to talk to reporters Wednesday, other prosecutors said they had little choice but to charge Espy under the law, even though the amount of money might appear trivial, as Espy’s supporters have argued, and there was no allegation that Espy had been influenced in any policy decisions by the gifts.
Espy was a congressman from Mississippi when he was named to Clinton’s first Cabinet. He was indicted on 39 felony charges last month, including mail and wire fraud, violations of the Meat Inspection Act of 1907, taking illegal gratuities, making false statements and tampering with a witness.
Prosecutors said that Espy accepted and in some cases solicited tickets from agriculture companies to professional basketball, football and tennis events. Other gifts mentioned in the indictment include a Waterford crystal bowl, luggage, lavish cross-country trips, cash payments to his girlfriend and a $10,000 donation to the unsuccessful congressional campaign of his brother, Henry Espy, to succeed him.
The indictment said the companies benefiting Espy included Tyson Foods Co., Sun-Diamond Growers of California and Smith Barney Inc. Sun Diamond has been fined $1.5 million, and Smith Barney, a subsidiary of the Travelers Group, settled its case with a $1 million payment. Officials at Tyson Foods said they had been notified that the company might soon be indicted.
Espy is also charged with failing to report the gifts properly and misleading federal investigators and President Clinton’s chief of staff about them. They said Espy asked an Agriculture Department official to alter a document requested by the department’s inspector general about a lobbyist who paid for him and his girlfriend to travel to a National Football League playoff game in Dallas in 1994.
Most of the counts against Espy carry a potential sentence each of five years in prison. The charge that he ordered an Agriculture Department worker to alter a document carries a possible 10-year sentence.
Reid Weingarten, Espy’s lawyer, had denounced the indictment, saying the prosecutor had “stretched the statutes beyond recognition and taken trivial, personal and entirely benign activities and attempted to distort them into criminal acts.”