While contemplating writing an article about Johnny Dupree, African American Gubernatorial candidate for the state of Mississippi, I was reminded of the redoubtable Mike Espy. From 1987 to 1993, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He also served as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1993 to 1994 and was the first African American to hold the post. He was and still is an idol of mine and at that point in time, he was the highest ranking African American politician in the United States.
In 1994 he was pressured to resign his position as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture amid allegations that he inappropriately received gifts from businesses and lobbyists. After months of media inquiry, Espy announced his resignation. The move was made a couple of weeks after Donald Smaltz was chosen to investigate Espy’s acceptance of gifts from companies and lobbyists that were under the jurisdiction of the USDA.
As many of you may remember, back on August 27, 1997, Mike Espy was indicted on charges of receiving inappropriate gifts, specifically from Tyson and Sun Diamond. Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz presented more than 70 witnesses in the trial; spent $17 million dollars on various phases of the case and Espy’s defense rested without calling witnesses, asserting that the prosecution had not established Espy’s guilt. It is also important to note that Espy wholeheartedly snubbed a plea bargain.
Although Smaltz proved that Espy received the gifts, he failed to demonstrate that Espy did something in return for them. The law allows officials to accept gifts out of friendship or a yearning to establish friendship, so long as the gifts are not for acts of quid pro quo.
Defense lawyers said many of the gifts came from lifelong friends and others were given as harmless acts of generosity. Day after day, Smaltz's own witnesses described Espy as a superior leader who made all decisions on their merits.
During testimony before the jury, the prosecution's chief witness told Smaltz in front of the jury: "God knows, if I had $30 million, I could find dirt on you, sir." Throughout the trial, Smaltz griped that the defense was infusing race into the trial in what he saw as a plea to the mainly African American jury.
On December 2, 1998, Espy was acquitted of all 30 criminal charges and the jury deliberated for only 9 hours. It was reported that one of the jurors stated "This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw. I can't believe Mr. Smaltz ever brought this to trial." This sentiment was also expressed by several other jurors.
Espy celebrated as the jury forewoman broadcasted the verdicts in U.S. District Court. Thirty times she looked at the verdict form and declared "not guilty" as independent counsel Donald Smaltz and his team of lawyers sat calmly at the prosecution table. Barbara Bisoni, the only Caucasian juror, said Smaltz's case "had holes" and that race by no means entered into the two days of deliberations.
"He's not unlike any other schoolyard bully," Espy said of Smaltz. "You have to stand up to him. You have to let him know you're not going to back down, and sooner or later it's going to be okay."
The moral of the story is; when God is on your side, not even a prosecutor with a $17 million dollar budget can convict you. Espy faced immeasurable odds but at the end of his ordeal, he was still standing. He never compromised his character and refused to negotiate a plea bargain. Mike Espy was and still is the epitome of a transformational leader.