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CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION ZEROES IN ON ESPY

An independent counsel has informed former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy that he is a target of a criminal grand jury investigation, a source close to the probe said today.

The grand jury also is targeting poultry giant Tyson Foods in its investigation into whether Tyson tried to use football tickets and free air fare to influence Espy while he was in President Clinton's Cabinet. Espy resigned in December 1994.

Tyson Foods acknowledged last month that it has been told it is a target in the nearly three-year investigation by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz.

Reid Weingarten, Espy's attorney, was out of the country and unavailable to comment.

Smaltz has spent $9 million to investigate whether Espy violated the law by accepting tickets from Tyson for a Dallas Cowboys playoff game and $1,009 in air fare from the company for his girlfriend, Patricia Dempsey.

Investigators say the Tyson Foundation also provided Ms. Dempsey a $1,200 scholarship.

Tyson Foods has branded Smaltz's investigation a "misguided and senseless expenditure of funds by an unrestrained and imprudent independent counsel." It said it was only acting with "common hospitality."

Espy has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged. He has repaid Tyson and other agribusinesses that gave him sports tickets, gifts and travel reimbursements.

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