U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks to the media after giving his political speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

In early 1999, soon after Mike Espy was found not guilty by a federal jury on all 30 counts of accepting illegal gifts while agriculture secretary, he returned to his native Mississippi to hold a news conference where he released a poll showing he would be the favorite in the race for lieutenant governor later that year.

It was obvious that the then 45-year-old Espy, was trying to accomplish two goals—to make sure the people back home understood that he was no longer under a cloud of corruption and to reaffirm his bona fides as a viable Mississippi politician.

At that news conference, Espy made it clear he would not be a candidate that year, but left the door open to a run for political office at a later date.

Now, Espy, who in 1986 became the first African-American elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi in the modern era, is finally running again – in a special election to replace Thad Cochran in the U.S. Senate – and his opponents believe those charges from the 1990s make him unfit to again serve in Congress.

The Mississippi Republican Party recently released a 48-second video titled “Too corrupt for the Clintons” focusing on Espy’s resignation in 1994, which came in the midst of a federal investigation. That probe resulted Espy’s indictment for accepting gifts totaling $35,000 from businesses and lobbyists that his agency regulated.

Specifically, Espy was indicted for accepting gifts – such as tickets to sporting events, including the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the Super Bowl – from various groups, including poultry producer Tyson Foods. But the special counsel appointed at the time never could identify how Espy, the then-secretary of agriculture, helped the gift-givers. Some of entities that gave Espy gifts pleaded guilty and were fined.

The anti-Espy video does not point out that a federal jury found Espy not guilty of all counts. Connected to the video is a web page titled “The real Mike Espy,” which the state Republican Party also paid for.

Oleta Fitzgerald 

Of the video, Espy campaign manager Oleta Fitzgerald said, “The Supreme Court of the United States agreed unanimously that the charges were bogus. The most conservative justice on the Court rebuked the prosecution for overreaching. Sen. (Cindy) Hyde-Smith’s attack is just more of the same from Washington—false personal attacks to cover up that she’d hurt Mississippi families with an age tax, slashed coverage for pre-existing conditions, and higher health care bills every month. Mitch McConnell should be proud, but Mississippi isn’t.”

Hyde-Smith, a Republican, was appointed this past spring by Gov. Phil Bryant as the interim U.S. senator to replace the long-serving Cochran who resigned in March for health reasons. Hyde-Smith and fellow Republican Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville, along with Espy, a Democrat, and lesser known Gautier Democrat Tobey Bartee, are vying in a Nov. 6 special election to replace Cochran.

In referencing the U.S. Supreme Court, Fitzgerald was referring the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the unanimous decision for the nation’s highest court in which he stated it was not illegal for a federal official to receive a gift unless it was linked to the official performing an action to benefit the gift-giver. The Scalia opinion was from a case in which the special counsel’s office appealed a lower court decision to dismiss the charges against one of the companies indicted for giving Espy gifts.

The video claims: “Espy’s behavior was so troubling it was too much even for his long-time friends Bill and Hillary Clinton who forced him to resign from their cabinet.”

Lucien Smith, chair of the state Republican Party

Lucien Smith, chair of the state Republican Party, telegraphed the plan to run against Espy earlier this summer during an episode of the Jungle, Mississippi Today’s election podcast.

He said, “I don’t know Mike personally, and he may be a phenomenal individual, but he does have the rare distinction of being one of the people the Clintons found too corrupt to have in their administration, having asked him to resign just a couple years before the indictments came down.”

Espy addressed the indictments when he announced his candidacy for the Senate seat.

In announcing his campaign in April, Espy wrote, “I know what it takes to have to fight for a good name – because I had to fight for mine. When false accusations are leveled, I believe you have no choice but to fight. For me it took four long years before the record was finally corrected, but it was, and in the end I emerged triumphant.

“This ordeal made me stronger, wiser and more humble and faithful, and I discovered that in Mississippi, unlike Washington, people who know you best would give you the benefit of the doubt. My respect and admiration for the hospitable nature and charitable spirit of Mississippians is something for which I will be forever grateful.”

The 1999 poll showed Espy, a Yazoo City native, garnering 28 percent of the white vote. If he could achieve that number on Nov. 6, his underdog campaign might surprise political pundits.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.