Espy Paid Off $267,000 Tax Debt Shortly After Lobbying for Ivory Coast Despot

Mississippi Senate candidate downplays ties to African strongman accused of crimes against humanity

Mike Espy | Espy for Senate
November 21, 2018

Mike Espy, the Democrat vying to capture a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi, paid off more than $267,000 in outstanding income taxes shortly after undertaking a lucrative lobbying contract with an African despot accused of crimes against humanity.

Espy, a Clinton-era cabinet official who resigned over allegations of financial and ethical impropriety, has spent the past two decades cashing in on his political connections as a trial lawyer, lobbyist, and commentator.

Throughout those roles, Espy reported an annual income exceeding $761,000, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate Ethics committee.

Despite the high income, Espy has had nearly eight different tax liens filed against him by the Internal Revenue Service for failing to pay income taxes throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Several of the liens date back to income Espy earned in 1992 while serving as a member of Congress and extend to the entirety of his tenure leading the Department of Agriculture.

The three most recent liens filed by the IRS against Espy were in June 2009 and September and December 2010. Those liens, totaling more than $267,000, remained unpaid until shortly after Espy entered into a fruitful lobbying contract with the government of Côte d'Ivoire.

Espy's business arrangement, officially a three-month, $750,000 consultancy through the Ivory Coast's Coffee and Cocoa Regulatory Board, came at the same time the country was undergoing political turmoil. Côte d'Ivoire's then-president, Laurent Gbagbo, had just lost his reelection bid and was refusing to cede power. Gbagbo, who had ruled the country since 2000 through extralegal means, denounced attempts to remove him from office as a "coup d'etat" and ordered forces loyal to him to kill, torture, and sexually assault political opponents.

Although the standoff lasted less than a year, the State Department has estimated Gbagbo's action resulted in approximately 3,000 casualties. In 2016, Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be tried in front of the International Criminal Court for his conduct following the 2010 Côte d'Ivoire elections.

Records obtained by the Washington Free Beacon indicate the IRS released the June 2009 lien, totaling more than $127,000, in January 2011—the same month Espy received the initial $400,000 down payment for his work on behalf of Gbagbo's regime. The IRS released Espy's two other liens, accounting for more than $139,000 in unpaid income taxes, in February and March of 2011, when Espy was scheduled to receive the remaining $350,000.

It is unclear what tax years the 2009 and 2010 liens were meant to address—the Espy campaign was unresponsive to requests from the Free Beacon. Furthermore, the IRS did not return requests for comment as to whether Espy's debts were paid in full or a compromise sum had been struck with the agency.

Espy's ties to Gbagbo have come under scrutiny in recent weeks as he and incumbent Republican senator Cindy Hyde-Smith face-off to determine who will fill the remainder of former Republican senator Thad Cochran's term. Hyde-Smith, who was ascended to the seat when Cochran retired in March, placed first in the Nov. 6 special election, with Espy close behind.

Since no candidate cleared the 50 percent threshold required for outright victory, the top two finishers, Hyde-Smith and Espy, advanced to a run-off to be held on November 27.

For its part, Espy's campaign has attempted to downplay the candidate's ties to the African despot.

"Secretary Espy worked on agricultural issues for international clients," Danny Blaton, the campaign's communications director, told Fox News when the story first broke. "Over the course of that work, he realized one of those clients didn't pass the smell test, so he terminated the contract, and then reported what he knew to the U.S. government."

That argument, however, has not proven to be accurate. While Espy did drop the contract, it was not terminated in January as the candidate previously claimed, but two weeks short of its scheduled end date. Documents filed with the Justice Department pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act also indicate Espy received the full $750,000 from Gbagbo's regime.

Additionally, Espy's actions on behalf of the Ivory Coast extended beyond advocating for the country's cocoa interests. The candidate met with the Central Intelligence Agency, the United Nations, and "various election monitoring and democratic governance organizations" while the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were pressuring Gbagbo to accept defeat.

Shortly before his official contract was set to start in January 2011, Espy conducted an interview with the Telegraph discussing Côte d'Ivoire postelection strife.

"President Gbagbo is very clear that he's not backing down," Espy, who was recognized as Gbagbo's American representative, said. "He is absolutely certain that this election was stolen by the rebel forces in the north. He is not going to abdicate."

"If any move is made by the U.N. or other forces to jeopardize the safety or position of the president, his supporters would come out."

The New York Times also reported that Espy appeared on Ivorian television to "speak on behalf of Gbagbo's government."

Although Espy cut direct ties with the government of Côte d'Ivoire in 2011, he remains on the board of directors of Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, an international nonprofit actively "maximizing opportunities" in the Ivory Coast's cocoa industry. Currently, CNFA is the recipient of a three-year $14.6 million grant from the USDA—the agency Espy once ran—to boost the "productivity and efficiency" of cocoa "actors" throughout Côte d'Ivoire.

As denoted by his financial disclosures, Espy receives an annual salary of $3,000 for his service on CNFA's board of directors.