Choking on Small Potatoes

Article excerpt

Independent counsel Donald Smaltz's 39-count indictment of Bill Clinton's agriculture secretary, Mike Espy, looks like one that could have been drawn up against Bill or Hillary Clinton or vice president Al Gore-except that Mr. Espy's sins are such small potatoes. Mr. Espy did not make political fundraising calls at taxpayers' expense from his federal office telephone. He was not involved in the solicitation of laundered illegal political donations from foreign nationals, who may have been acting for a foreign power. Neither did he withhold "lost" subpoenaed documents from the independent counsel for two years. Nor has an Arkansas state trooper accused him of offering a bribe for silence.

Mr. Espy, who was forced from office before his indictment, faces 155 years in jail because a food company gave him $90 worth of basketball tickets, a poultry company gave him a birthday party and six tickets to Mr. Clinton's presidential Inauguration, and another company gave him $173 worth of crystal, Bullets-Knicks tickets valued at $222, and passed $1,200 cash to his girlfriend. Altogether Mr. Smaltz comes up with $35,000 worth of gifts - a tiny fraction of the illegal sums that John Huang delivered, apparently with White House blessings, to the Democratic National Committee. Mike Espy, a former member of Congress, is sophisticated enough to know he could sell U.S. agricultural policy for a higher price. It brings to mind the charges years ago against former Treasury Secretary John Connally, a multimillionaire at the time, that he had taken a $10,000 bribe. It just wasn't enough money to ring true.

Mr. Smaltz is aware that the gifts to Mr. Espy are too small to constitute bribery, and he does not charge Mr. Espy with doing anything for the companies in exchange for their gifts. Rather, he has indicted Mr. Espy on "a gratuities offense." The law that the former agricultural secretary broke is the one that says it is illegal for federal officials to accept gifts. It is even illegal for a federal official to accept a good lunch.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that independent counsels Don Smaltz and Ken Starr are on the wrong cases. Mr. Smaltz is hounding Mr. …