In his first months as Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy accepted $5,900 worth of gifts from a longtime friend.
The problem is that the friend also happened to be a lobbyist for a large farm cooperative, Sun-Diamond Growers of California, that has multimillion-dollar issues pending before Mr. Espy's department.
Did the gifts constitute illegal gratuities to a government official? Or were they just innocent presents offered by an old college chum?
Today, the US Supreme Court will be asked to decide.
How the case is resolved will greatly affect how lobbyists do business in the nation's capital.
Analysts say if Sun-Diamond wins it could usher in a new era of lavish spending by special interest groups seeking to influence government officials through gift-giving "friendships."
If it goes the other way, these analysts say, it would put the ranks of K Street lawyers and their wealthy clients on notice that even a ham sandwich offered with the wrong motive could land would-be Washington movers and shakers behind bars.
More important, the court's decision would give law-abiding lobbyists and government officials much-needed guidance into when gifts are proper and when they are illegal.
"Right now lobbyists function at their peril. They don't have a bright line of demarcation," says Samuel Buffone, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the American League of Lobbyists.
"I've been in Washington for 20 years and until this case I never knew there was a gratuity statute - and many people still don't," says Elaine Acevedo, a former Washington lobbyist and past president of the American League of Lobbyists.
Under federal law it is illegal to give anything of value to a public official "for or because of any official act performed or to be performed" by the official.
Government ethics regulations say officials may not accept a gift valued at more than $20. In contrast, the gratuity statute (a criminal law) has no minimum. Any gift of any value given to influence official acts violates the law.
Such laws are important because to accept such a gift would place the official in conflict of interest or at least raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Federal officials are required by law and ethics regulations to maintain undivided loyalty to the nation rather than lobbyists and other special interests seeking to curry favor or gain special access.
David Vladeck of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington has monitored lobbying for many years. He says much of the activity is based on human nature and the lobbyists' desire to be as effective as possible.
"They give the gift because they believe it helps them gain access. Why do they want access, because they have issues that are of vital economic concern to their clients," he says. "The point of the gift is to pave the road, to get the ear of the decisionmaker."
Plugging the gift pipeline
Some Washington watchdog groups say they favor a ban on all gifts. "I don't think people should go into public service expecting to be on the receiving end of the gift pipeline," says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan research organization.
Instead, officials should exert a leadership role, insisting on ethical values for themselves and those they deal with, he says. Hogan says Harry Truman always kept a roll of postage stamps in his desk in the Oval Office to use on personal thank-you notes. The stamps were paid for out of his own pocket rather than the US Treasury.
"People want public servants to be leaders," he says. "They want them to be setting the rules not figuring out how to evade the existing rules."
Espy was forced to resign in 1994 amid allegations of corruption. He was acquitted at trial last year. The Supreme Court case deals only with Sun-Diamond's trial, which was held prior to Espy's trial.
In the Sun-Diamond case, a federal jury in Washington, D.C., found the company guilty of giving illegal gratuities to Espy. But the conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which said prosecutors had failed to prove the gifts were given to influence at least one specific official act by Espy.
Prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the gratuity law does not require proof that a specific gift resulted in a specific favorable decision. Rather, they say, the law broadly covers any gifts that might in some way influence official acts by a government official.
Sun-Diamond lawyers argue that unless the gifts were given for or because of a specific official act, they are not illegal gratuities.
Prosecutors disagree. They say Sun-Diamond's approach raises the illegal-gift statute to the level of bribery. The intent of the gratuity law is to protect government from a broader and more subtle version of corruption, they say.
Details of the Espy case
In the Sun-Diamond and Espy case, the lobbyist gave the Agriculture secretary a trip to the US Open tennis tournament for $2,295, luggage worth $2,427, meals worth $665, and a crystal bowl and framed print valued at $524.
The cost of the gifts was later reimbursed by Sun-Diamond to the lobbyist as a business expense.
At the time the gifts were given, Sun-Diamond was seeking a regulatory definition from Espy that would make millions of dollars' worth of federal grants available to the members of the Sun-Diamond cooperative.
In addition, Sun-Diamond wanted Espy to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to delay or reject the proposed phase-out of a pesticide that was being used by Sun-Diamond growers.
"The conduct at issue here stepped way over the line," says Mr. Vladeck.
"If the Supreme Court agrees with the (appeals court), it means happy days are here again for lobbyists. The wine and liquor and big juicy steaks are back," Vladeck says. "It would be great to be a candidate in this town. You'd never have to pick up a check, you'd never have to eat a sandwich again."