Washington Watch: Birds of a Feather

Just before New Year's champagne corks started popping came the news that Tyson Foods, the Arkansas poultry giant, had pleaded guilty to charges of "making illegal gifts" -- that's what you and I would call giving bribes-to Clinton's first Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. The event got little attention outside the Beltway. Even the august New York Times ran only a terse four-paragraph AP dispatch buried inside, and with most political reporters on vacation hardly any news stories bothered to place this astonishing development in its proper context.What's unusual about the Tyson plea is that it marks the first time prosecutors were able to nail one of the three corporate behemoths that launched and sustained Bill Clinton's political career. Together with Stephens Inc. and WalMart Tyson Foods was, as "Forbes" once put it, one of the "undeniably formidable business juggernauts" in Arkansas whose "mind-boggling concentrations of wealth and influence "had everything to do with a no-holds-barred unfettered approach to free enterprise" and to which Bill Clinton was always ready to listen.The world's largest producer and processor of poultry is headed by notorious influence-buyer Don Tyson, who operates from an exact replica of the White House's Oval Office (except that the doorknobs are shaped like hen's eggs). The primitive paternalism of the firm's corporate culture was once thus described by journalist Norman Solomon: It "keeps its farmers in near-indentured servitude ... works its underpaid, frequently injured workers at an extraordinary pace ... and discharges half a million tons of chicken shit into Arkansas rivers every year." In his brilliant book "Partners in Power: The Clintons and their America", Roger Morris details how the Clinton/Tyson relationship made the nation's second-poorest state subservient to corporate power. "Regulatory enforcement was virtually non-existent [and] the chicken industry virtually made its own rules. Even the state inspection laboratory was controlled by poultry producers." The insider-trading scam that made Hillary Clinton a $100,000 profit on a $1000 investment in commodities futures was engineered by Tyson's corporate counsel, Jim Blair, who was also one of Governor Clinton's closest confidantes on everything from appointments to legislation. In return for bundles of campaign cash and legal bribes like the commodities deal, Tyson got millions' worth of tax breaks and blinkers on those charged with enforcing anti-pollution laws. In its guilty plea, Tyson Foods agreed to pay a penalty of $6 million.Unfortunately, that's just a drop in the bucket for the poultry conglomerate, and the profits Tyson made thanks to favors from the Clinton administration made the fine little more than the normal cost of doing business. For example, the Clinton administration delayed for two years implementation of more stringent federal clean-poultry statutes, an action worth a small fortune to Tyson. But the most revolting scandal was the infamous "Chickens for Chechens" deal. At a 1995 summit meeting in Egypt, Bill Clinton agreed to make clear his public support for the re-election of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, then the target of world obloquy for his murderous war on the secessionist Chechens. In return, leaked notes of the meeting revealed, Yeltsin agreed to lift Russia's embargo against American chicken, which was judged too polluted to meet Russia's environmental laws. Ninety percent of U.S. poultry exported to Russia comes from Tyson Foods. In other words, Clinton gave Yeltsin a blank check to kill as many Chechens as he wanted, provided the Russians bought Don Tyson's dirty chickens.Bribe-takers sometimes go to jail; bribe-givers rarely do, and the fine imposed on Tyson Foods in the Espy case points up the laxity of our laws against corporate corruption and white-collar crime. If the establishment media -- what Noam Chomsky rightly calls "the business press" -- provided even the bare-bones facts on corporate criminals like the Tyson empire, perhaps voters would come to understand that real, structural reform only begins with changing how we finance campaigns and political parties.

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