If Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott resigns his seat, he could be replaced by a black Democrat caught up in Clinton administration scandals involving Tyson Foods.

The Mississippi Sun Herald reports today that state Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said if Lott resigns and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appoints a replacement, Jackson lawyer Mike Espy would be the best choice.

Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy

“If I had to pick, it would be Secretary Espy, hands down,” Cole told the paper. “He has Washington experience, and he’s proven that he can build biracial coalitions. It would immediately begin the healing process.”

Espy, who served in Congress and as U.S. secretary of agriculture, “would make a fine senator” if Lott is forced to quit the Senate because of his racially charged remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, Cole said.

For now, Lott is resisting suggestions that he resign. But political observers are already discussing possible replacements for Lott. The list includes Espy, Attorney General Mike Moore, recently defeated U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows and Rep. Chip Pickering, the Republican who beat Shows last month.

If Lott resigns, state law would require Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, to appoint a replacement. A special election would be held within 90 days if the senator left this year. If he resigned in 2003, though, the election for the seat would coincide with next year’s Nov. 4 balloting for statewide offices.

According to the Sun Herald, Espy probably has the most statewide appeal of any black Democrat. He demonstrated his ability to win votes from white and black voters from 1987 to 1993, when he represented Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District. In 1998, a four-year, $20 million corruption investigation by Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz ended in Espy’s acquittal.

Espy was indicted for taking gifts from Tyson Foods, a company headed by Don Tyson, a major supporter of Clinton’s campaign for president. Tyson loaned the campaign millions when it was faltering.
It was Tyson’s general counsel, James Blair, who set up a sweetheart deal for Hillary Clinton to get into the cattle futures business. She parlayed a $1,000 investment into nearly $100,000 in a year. Tyson was placed on probation in 1998 after pleading guilty to charges of providing illegal gifts to Espy. Espy was acquitted. Clinton pardoned Tyson Foods executive Archie Schaffer III from a one-year jail term for illegally trying to influence Espy. Former Tyson lobbyist Jack L. Williams was pardoned on a conviction involving gifts.

The Arkansas-based company, which paid a hefty fine and lost key executives for getting too cozy with the Clinton administration, is still caught in a game of chicken with the Justice Department. Eleven months ago, a federal grand jury indicted the company, two of its executives and four former managers on charges of conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to work in its poultry plants.

The government told Tyson it could avoid prosecution by paying a $100 million fine, company attorneys say. But Tyson calls the fine excessive and accuses the government of using undercover agents to entrap Tyson employees. The deadline for plea Motions filed in Chattanooga earlier this month indicates defense attorneys are prepared to go forward with a trial Feb. 4 rather than pay any fines. U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar expects the trial to last at least six weeks.

Tyson employs 120,000 workers and recorded sales of $25 billion in 2001.

Prosecutors contend immigrants worked for lower wages than legal workers at Tyson’s plants, allowing the company to cut costs and boost production. The company paid smugglers to transport at least 140 immigrants to its plants and provide them with false documents so they could work, prosecutors say.

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