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Espy Resigns to Spare Clinton Embarrassment

By Sara Fritz and David Lauter
Los Angeles Times

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned abruptly Monday, hoping to spare President Clinton the embarrassment likely to be caused by an independent counsel's investigation of allegations that Espy abused the perquisites of office and improperly accepted sports tickets and trips from agricultural businesses.

Espy's surprise decision to step down by Dec. 31 ended prematurely the once-promising tenure of the Clinton administration's youngest Cabinet appointee and the first black to serve as Agriculture secretary. With the departure of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Espy becomes the second Clinton Cabinet official to resign.

The decision also proved to be a humiliating admission of defeat for the energetic young Espy, who until now had vowed to survive what he claimed were politically motivated and unsubstantiated allegations that he violated ethics laws by accepting the hospitality of such companies as Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Quaker Oats of Missouri and Sun Diamond of California.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times has learned, another Clinton Cabinet official whose actions are under scrutiny, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, has told White House officials that he is willing to step down, too, if the Justice Department determines that he misled the FBI prior to his appointment about payments in excess of $200,000 to a former girlfriend. The woman has alleged that Cisneros agreed to pay the money to help alleviate damage to her career as a result of a romantic relationship between them some years ago.

Espy, 40, a former Mississippi congressman, announced his resignation at a hastily scheduled news conference and insisted he had not been asked to step down by the president or any other White House official.

"This was my choice," he said.

Nevertheless, his resignation came as the White House counsel's office was completing work on an internal review of the Espy matter that apparently uncovered reasons to challenge the Agriculture secretary's contention that he had done nothing wrong. Among other things, the White House investigation uncovered a previously unknown $1,200 "scholarship" that Espy's girlfriend received from Tyson Foods.

Sources said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and White House Counsel Abner Mikva briefed Espy last Friday on the preliminary results of their review and gave him until Monday to decide how to respond. They were said to have left little doubt that they wanted him to quit.

"We didn't want this to linger," said a senior official, adding that White House officials were determined in this case to avoid the criticism they had received for failing to obtain the prompt resignation of Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman after he was accused of lying to a congressional committee.

In a statement accepting Espy's resignation, the president said he was troubled by the appearance of conflict of interest created by Espy's acceptance of favors from industry sources, and he concluded that the secretary's resignation "is appropriate."

Yet because Espy's resignation does not take effect for three months, Clinton will not be forced to face the politically sensitive task of selecting a successor until after the November election. Among the contenders to succeed him is Ruth Harkin, wife of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Robert Rominger, former California agriculture secretary.

While Espy's resignation spares Clinton the political damage of having a sitting Cabinet member under a cloud, it nonetheless does nothing to limit Espy's own legal liability. The investigation of Espy will continue under independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz.

Among other things, Smaltz is investigating Espy's acceptance of lodging at the picturesque Tyson Management Center following a speech to the Arkansas Poultry Federation and his return trip to Washington aboard a Tyson corporate jet. Espy's girlfriend, Pat Dempsey, accompanied him on that trip and also enjoyed the Tyson company's hospitality.

In addition, Espy and Dempsey attended the Super Bowl as guests of Tysons.

For Clinton, the allegations against Espy related to Tyson Foods were the most politically volatile. The president himself has often been accused of accepting favors from the head of the corporation, Don Tyson, a prominent Democrat in Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

In addition, some critics claim that while Espy was accepting personal favors from Tyson Foods, his administration was slow to act on proposals to improve poultry industry inspections - a charge the secretary has vehemently denied.

Espy's support at the White House apparently dried up a few days ago when his lawyer, Reid Weingarten, told Clinton's lawyers belatedly about the Tysons scholarship to Dempsey. He insisted she obtained the money without Espy's assistance, but White House officials concluded that it had the appearance of an illegal indirect favor to Espy.