"I believe this ruling totally vindicates us," said CEO Michael Mondavi. "The independent counsel has a responsibility to return our fine, pay our attorneys' fees and offer a letter of apology."
The statute as written prohibits giving a gift or promise of "anything of value" to a public official "for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such public official." In a case brought by a California agricultural cooperative that was convicted of giving Espy illegal gratuities, the court ruled that there must be a clear connection between the gifts and the official acts (something never demonstrated in the Mondavi case). Simply giving a gift to a federal official does not violate the law.
"I'm not surprised [at the ruling]," Mondavi said. "I'm very pleased." The vintner noted that his winery was pressured by "heavy guns" to capitulate to the government. "We did no wrong. We were punished," he said.
Espy was forced out of his Cabinet position in 1994 after reports that he had accepted free travel, event tickets and other gratuities prohibited to executive branch members. The case against Mondavi grew out of a government investigation into Espy's activities by independent counsel Donald Smaltz.
The value of Mondavi's gifts to Espy amounted to less than $400. But to avoid criminal charges, the company settled the case, paying $100,000 in civil damages to the U.S. Treasury, $20,000 to cover the legal costs and $30,000 to fund a program on ethics at a California business school. Espy was later cleared of all charges against him; however, Mondavi still paid its fine.
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