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Agriculture Chief's Troubles Hit at Hard Time for Department

Bill to cut overstuffed USDA bureaucracy stalls on tricky environmental question

THE ethical troubles of United States Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy arise as he is nearing congressional approval for a massive reorganization of one of government's most entrenched bureaucracies.

The attorney general last week asked an independent counsel to investigate Mr. Espy's acceptance of plane trips, lodging, and sports tickets from companies regulated by the Agriculture Department. The White House later asked the Office of Government Ethics to review Espy's actions as well.

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While the makeover of the US Department of Agriculture may finally succeed or fail regardless of the ethics inquiries, more is at stake than the career of a rising young star who had become, in 1986, the first black House member from Mississippi since Reconstruction.

The department is a massive collection of agencies that numbers 1 employee for every 16 farmers in the nation. Its budget nearly equals the value of the nation's entire crop output. And in some increasingly suburban counties, it maintains agriculture extension offices where there is only a farmer or two remaining.

So the department has been one of the first and largest targets of the Clinton administration's campaign to ``reinvent government.''

A bill drafted by Secretary Espy to cut or consolidate 1,100 field offices, to reduce the payroll by 7,500 jobs, to meld 43 independent agencies into 28, and to save $2.3 billion over four years has passed the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee.

The bill would have moved relatively easily through the House as well, but an amendment added in the Agriculture Committee has become a serious snag. It would create a ``risk assessment'' office to review the health and safety risks behind USDA environmental regulations and their cost.

Bill caught in House standoff

Environmentalists and others in the House opposed the amendment and pulled the bill from the House floor, leaving it caught in a standoff now for two months.

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The 110,000 employees at the Agriculture Department are left hanging. ``This is the most significant potential change that Agriculture has seen since perhaps the Depression,'' says Joe Leo, chairman of the USDA management council and a senior executive in the Food and Nutrition Service.

The department has already undergone a huge mental and cultural shift in accepting the need for change, he says, yet in practical terms almost nothing has changed. ``We have to keep our people in both visions,'' he says. ``We do wish Congress would speak. The worst of all worlds is to remain in limbo.''

Whether Secretary Espy's tribulations jeopardize the reorganization effort is not clear yet. One House staff member says that the legislation will proceed regardless of how the members of Congress view the ethics matter.

But the legislation gives the secretary much leeway in reorganizing the department and some members of Congress who supported that leeway, says American Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Don Lipton, ``may be expressing some regret soon.''

Accepted lodging, travel from Tyson

Espy stayed at quarters owned by Tyson Foods, Inc., a poultry company in Arkansas, last year and flew back to Washington on a company jet. The Agriculture Department has reportedly reimbursed the company for the lodging and plane fare because Espy was on official business, speaking to a poultry industry group. The company was not reimbursed for Espy's companion, Patricia Dempsey, who accompanied him on the trip, since she is not a government employee.

Tyson also gave Espy $60 tickets to a football game in Dallas in January. He has reportedly repaid Tyson for his ticket out of personal funds. He also allegedly asked for and received tickets to a basketball playoff game from the chief executive of the Quaker Oats Company.

Some USDA employees claim that Espy's chief of staff ordered them to stop work on tougher poultry inspection rules last year. But a Justice Department investigation found no evidence that Espy had taken action favoring Tyson Foods in return for favors.

Espy says that he has done nothing wrong. While federal rules bar such relations between employees and industries they regulate, the rules are less clear for senior political appointees. Last Thursday, the White House counsel issued new ethics rules barring Cabinet officials from accepting most trips from private companies.

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