Espy's Downfall

BIPARTISAN praise from Farm Belt lawmakers for Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy emphasizes the senselessness of the evident ethical lapses that led to his resignation announcement on Oct. 3.

Two probes are under way - one by the White House, another by an independent counsel - that will help clarify whether guidelines or laws were broken. But President Clinton promised to hold his administration to higher ethics standards than those of his predecessors. That should have alerted Mr. Espy to avoid even the appearance of accepting favors from the special interests he is charged with regulating. One of these interests includes Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry processor. Tyson's chairman is a ``friend of Bill.'' The two investigations resulted from reports that in 1993 and early '94 Espy accepted travel, tickets to sporting events, and gifts from Tyson and other food processors. Most recently, it was reported that Espy's girlfriend received a $1,200 scholarship from a Tyson-run foundation.

A 1907 law prohibits people involved in meat inspections from accepting anything of value from meat processors. Of particular interest are allegations that when Agriculture Department regulators were re-drafting meat-safety rules in 1993, they were ordered to destroy a draft regulation involving poultry.

Yet Tyson Foods' role also needs examining. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to capture the spirit of the 1907 law. For all of the high-powered legal advice Tyson can afford, it should be clear that the company carries a moral responsibility to avoid the kind of favors that might have drawn only winks when Espy was a congressman on the House Agriculture Committee; once he became agriculture secretary the rules changed.

This episode does nothing to ease public cynicism enough about government. But in a larger sense, the system worked: A person suspected of ethical lapses is leaving and will try to vindicate himself on his own time. The president now must nominate a replacement who not only fits the job description, but who gets the ethics message as well.

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