Espy opens records on 135 trips


WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy apologized yesterday for being "inattentive to the appearance of impropriety" and made public five volumes of documents about the 135 trips he had made since taking office.

The records provide information about some trips that have been under scrutiny by federal authorities, but they shed little new light on the question being examined by federal authorities: whether Mr. Espy illegally accepted transportation, lodging and sports tickets from agricultural interests such as Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry processor.

Mr. Espy, a former Democratic congressman from Mississippi, denied violating any laws or ethics rules.

But he acknowledged that others might view his actions differently. "In reviewing these notebooks it has become clear to me that I may have been inattentive to the appearance of impropriety," he said. "I regret that, deeply, and have taken full responsibility to correct those perceptions."

Yesterday, Mr. Espy said that no one, including Tyson, had any special influence at the department.

He blamed his problems in part on agency employees who were upset about department changes he has made or is planning. "There are going to be 7,500 fewer people," he said. "It's a serious effort, and some people don't like it."

The records show that Mr. Espy took 18 trips to Mississippi, often appearing at events there late in the week, then spending Saturday or Sunday in the state before returning to Washington or flying elsewhere.

Reid Weingarten, Mr. Espy's lawyer, said the secretary had traveled frequently to the state because he had received many speaking requests. The lawyer said Mr. Espy, who is divorced, also visited his two children, who live Mississippi.

Some of the records made public were censored by Agriculture Department officials, who deleted information about some trips that have been questioned by investigators but which Mr. Espy regards as personal.

One was a trip in January to Dallas, where Mr. Espy and Patricia Dempsey, a friend, attended a football playoff game.

The records do not mention that the two attended the game, but federal agents found that Mr. Espy and Ms. Dempsey were there as guests of Tyson Foods. Mr. Espy later repaid Tyson for his ticket but did not reimburse the company for Ms. Dempsey's ticket.

That trip raised questions about his relationship with Tyson, an Arkansas-based company, at a time when the Agriculture Department was considering tougher inspection policies for the poultry industry.

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