Facing costly federal poultry regulations, two Tyson Foods Co. officials sought to gain favor with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy using sports tickets, corporate aircraft and limousines, prosecutors said as trial opened for the two men.
"They did what they did because they wanted something from the secretary of agriculture," said Robert Ray, attorney with Espy independent counsel Donald Smaltz. "Those gifts were given in order to get cozy with a member of the president's Cabinet."As the trial began Tuesday, a federal appeals court reinstated three charges against Espy himself, rejecting a lower court's decision that had said the 1907 Meat Inspection Act did not apply to the top Agriculture Department official.
An eight-woman, four-man jury was seated to consider charges that Arkansas-based Tyson's Washington lobbyist, Jack L. Williams, and main corporate spokesman Archibald L. Schaffer III used $12,000 in gifts to gain favor with Espy in 1993 and 1994. The 15-count indictment also alleges both lied to investigators in an attempted coverup.
Ray told jurors the gifts came as the Agriculture Department was considering regulations involving fecal contamination reduction and safe-handling labels that could have cost Tyson - the nation's largest chicken company - more than $130 million in the first year.
The gifts included Tyson corporate aircraft flights to a birthday party for company chairman Don Tyson, tickets to President Clinton's first inaugural ball, tickets to a Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers playoff football game and a $1,200 scholarship for Espy's then-girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey.
Joe Caldwell, attorney for Schaffer contended that both defendants were simply Tyson employees carrying out the wishes of top executives.