Mike Espy was acquitted 20 years ago. But the corruption charges haunt his Senate bid

Mike Espy has a framed courtroom sketch artist’s rendering from his 1998 federal corruption trial prominently hanging on a wall in his law office, a keepsake from the lowest point in his political career.

“It’s to remind me how terrible a time it was,” said Espy, now a Democratic candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from Mississippi. “It was the worst moment in my life.”

Espy’s Republican opponents in next month’s Senate election don’t want voters to forget the moment, either.

Incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel are persistently, loudly reminding voters often that Espy was indicted on some 30 counts of accepting over $35,000 illegal gifts from companies when he was U.S. agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton. He was acquitted of all charges.

This is a tough issue for voters, because Espy’s case rests at the intersection of what’s ethical and what’s legal, said Katy Harriger, author of “The Special Prosecutor in American Politics.”

The indictment followed a independent counsel investigation that prompted Espy to resign as agriculture secretary in October 1994.

“I think it’s proper to bring up the matter and to say there is no disputing that Espy took the gifts and as a matter of government ethics that raises serious questions about his ethical temperament,” said George Brown, a Boston College law professor who served as an assistant independent counsel.

“But if you’re going to talk about the criminal law, you should talk about the whole case, including the acquittal. The most candid approach is to mention the whole deal,” Brown said.

Hyde-Smith, McDaniel, and the Mississippi Republican Party rarely mention that Espy was acquitted on all charges in the seven-week trial that ended a four-year, $17 million special counsel probe.

The jury concluded that independent counsel Donald Smaltz failed to show that companies like Sun-Diamond Growers Tyson Foods, and Quaker Oats benefited from giving the agriculture secretary gifts.

Twenty years later, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from reminding voters that Espy was charged.

The state Republican Party last month launched a 48-second video titled “Too Corrupt for the Clintons,” that highlights Espy’s resignation as agriculture secretary.

McDaniel raised Espy’s indictment in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month, noting that “He (Espy) had the misfortune of being indicted while in office and he had to step down.”

Hyde-Smith, when asked in a McClatchy interview about the differences between she and Espy, quickly replied “I’ve never been indicted.”

State Republican Party officials defend their strategy, saying the indictment is part of Espy’s political record and provides insight about who he is.

“The party has an obligation to educate voters about the choices and stances of those seeking to hold federal office,” said Jennifer Dunagin, the Mississippi Republican Party’s communications director. “From his federal indictment to his liberal record as a member of Congress, Mr. Espy has proven that he’s the wrong choice for Mississippi.”

Espy said he considers the corruption case a defining moment and a vindication of his family name.

“I’ve been redeemed by a jury, I’ve been redeemed by the American justice system, I’ve been redeemed by the Supreme Court,” he said. “So in this race, whoever tries to say I did something, what do you want me to say other than I played by the rules, and the American system of jurisprudence found me not guilty, manifestly so.”

Harriger explains that evaluating the case is complicated.

“The problem with the independent or special counsel statute is that you can have stuff that is smarmy and unethical and not what you want people in public service to do and it doesn’t mean it’s criminal,” said Harriger, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. “But a prosecutor is charged to figure out whether a crime has been committed.”

Still, Harriger believes Espy’s opponents “probably have a responsibility” to mention that he was acquitted when they mention his indictment.

“That’s due process, right?” she said. “A jury heard it, the state put its evidence before it, and he was acquitted.”

Smaltz’s investigation did result in more than a dozen convictions and $12 million in fines.

However, the Supreme Court in 1999 upheld a lower court decision that overturned one of the convictions against Sun-Diamond Growers of California.

In a unanimous opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled that government, in its argument brief co-authored by Brown, failed to prove a link between Sun-Diamond’s gifts — $5,900 worth of tennis tournament tickets, luggage and other items — and any actions taken by Espy favorable to the company.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas