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Calif. agriculture lobbyist pleads guilty in Espy probe Lake says former official sought money for brother


WASHINGTON -- Power-broker and Republican strategist James H. Lake pleaded guilty to wire fraud and election law violations yesterday and pledged to "fully cooperate" with the independent counsel who is probing former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's relationships with agribusinesses and their lobbyists.

Lake, California agriculture's pre-eminent Washington advocate, said after the proceedings in federal District Court that he had turned over some 20,000 documents to independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz concerning "every matter coming before my firm and the Department of Agriculture."

But he emphasized that "there is nothing else hanging over my firm and myself" other than the one felony and two misdemeanors that he admitted. And, he added, "I have no knowledge of anything relevant to Mr. Espy."

Many of the records reportedly pertain to Sun-Diamond Growers of Pleasanton, Calif., a major agricultural cooperative that Lake has represented for 15 years. Mr. Smaltz asserted in court that Lake had participated in a complex scheme to raise $5,000 in illegal corporate campaign contributions to Mr. Espy's brother, Henry, in conjunction with Richard Douglas, a senior vice president of Sun-Diamond who supervised Lake's work on behalf of the firm.

Sun-Diamond and Mr. Douglas have denied any wrongdoing.

Lake said he had revealed the plot to Mr. Smaltz after the court-appointed counsel agreed to grant immunity to Lake and three associates that Lake had brought into the deception, including his two sons.

Subsequently, Lake said, Mr. Smaltz indicated that he intended to prosecute the prestigious advocacy firm that Lake helped found, Robinson, Lake, Sawyer, Miller, and the firm's parent company, Bozell Worldwide Inc., for Lake's actions. Lake said he then waived his immunity in exchange for Mr. Smaltz's pledge not to charge the companies for Lake's crimes, which he had concealed from his partners.

In court, Mr. Smaltz said that Mr. Douglas solicited contributions in 1994 to reduce the campaign debt of Henry Espy, at Mike Espy's request. Henry Espy had unsuccessfully run in a 1993 special Democratic primary in Mississippi for the House seat that his brother had held and remained saddled with debt a year later.

Lake, who could face up to seven years in prison, will be sentenced at a later date.

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