A jury found a Post Falls insurance executive and a co-worker innocent Thursday of making illegal campaign contributions to gain favor with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.
Before the decision in U.S. District Court, former Crop Growers Corp. chief executive John J. Hemmingson, 43, paced the courtroom in his dark gray, double-breasted suit, fixing his hair and shoving his hands in his pockets.
Co-defendant Gary A. Black, 50, of Great Falls, Mont., sat motionless, staring straight ahead. His attorney hunched over the table with his face in his hands.
Then came the verdict. Hemmingson, red-faced, embraced his Minneapolis lawyer, Bill Mauzy, while Black broke into tears.
“I just want to go home to Montana,” Black said as he and his wife left the courtroom.
Prosecutors claimed Hemmingson and Black had filtered Crop Growers money through friends and relatives to help Henry Espy, Mike Espy’s brother. The use of company money for campaign contributions is a violation of federal election laws.
Henry Espy ran up a large debt in a failed 1993 bid for Congress when he sought to succeed his brother, who had been appointed to President Clinton’s cabinet. Mike Espy resigned late the next year amid allegations he took gifts from companies he regulated.
Hemmingson used to run Crop Growers, the nation’s second-largest provider of multi-peril crop insurance, from his executive offices in downtown Coeur d’Alene. The Great Falls, Mont.-based company moved last year to a Kansas City suburb. Hemmingson and Black remain the company’s two biggest individual shareholders.
Black’s attorney, Theodore Wells Jr,. said the jury believed Hemmingson and Black did not act with criminal intent.
Special prosecutor Joe Savage said he was disappointed with the verdict but promised his office would continue to investigate Mike Espy’s possible influence peddling.
“The jury did a good job,” said Savage in a whisper. “Every case speaks for itself.” The verdict ended a series of legal setbacks for Hemmingson.
In December, a jury in a New Orleans federal court convicted Hemmingson of three counts of laundering $20,000 and moving money across state lines to pay off Henry Espy’s political debts. He faces up to 40 years in prison and a $1 million fine when he is sentenced March 5.
Mauzy said Thursday’s decision should help Hemmingson get a re-trial in Louisiana, a motion he intends to file next week. If the motion fails, Mauzy said he will appeal.
Mauzy called Thursday’s ruling “a significant loss” for government prosecutors.
“This will slow down the independent counsel,” he said. “I expect them to be more restrained in pending matters.”
Hemmingson said he has put his Post Falls home up for sale while he’s been on the road fighting the cases against him. Hemmingson said he plans to keep his suite at the Spokane Club and hopes to move back to the Northwest when the cases against him are settled.
In January, Crop Growers agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle a two-count indictment accusing the company of contributing $46,000 to Henry Espy in violation of federal election laws.
Barry Levine, a Crop Growers lawyer, said the verdict showed the trial was politically motivated.
“I’m hopeful the independent counsel will be more introspective and set aside personal agendas and issues,” Levine said. “Their mission is to bring these people to their knees and make the pain intolerable.”
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