Dem's lobbying work draws GOP ire in Mississippi Senate race

JEFF AMY and EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
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Mike Espy, who is seeking to unseat appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., speaks about the upcoming Senate runoff during a rally in Vicksburg, Miss., Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Courtland Wells/The Vicksburg Post via AP)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Republicans in Mississippi's intensifying U.S. Senate race are slamming Democrat Mike Espy's lobbying work for an African leader who was later deposed and charged with crimes against humanity.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and a GOP campaign group have launched ads questioning whether Espy lied about his work for Ivory Coast ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court. Fox News reported on Espy's lobbying work Thursday.

Federal registration papers show Espy was hired by the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast from Jan. 1 to March 15 in 2011, collecting $750,000 before terminating the contract two weeks before its scheduled end.

"He lied because he said he cancelled the contract and there's evidence to the contrary that he did not," Hyde-Smith campaign spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said Friday. "Also, that he was willing to have a contract with someone who is now on trial in international court is, I think, telling."

For days the Espy campaign and Democratic groups have hammered Hyde-Smith over her video-recorded statement praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 campaign stop by saying: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

Criticism of Espy's lobbying work comes as his supporters are hitting Hyde-Smith over additional video-recorded statements from Nov. 3 in which she joked about "liberal folks" and making it "just a little more difficult" for them to vote.

Espy spokesman Danny Blanton told Fox on Thursday that Espy ended the contract after realizing his Ivory Coast client "didn't pass the smell test." On Friday, Blanton pointed back at Hyde-Smith's earlier remarks.

"Since that hasn't worked, she's trying to change the subject with a smear campaign against Mike," Blanton said in a statement.

A racially diverse group of more than 50 people gathered Friday in downtown Jackson and chanted, "No hate in our state" and "Cindy gotta go."

"She'll be glad to sit in a front-row seat of a public hanging, yet she'll brag about being endorsed by the Right to Life," said George H. Williams, a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Ridgeland. "Isn't that ironic?"

Hyde-Smith and Espy will compete in a Nov. 27 runoff for the final two years of a six-year term begun by Republican Thad Cochran, who retired in April. Mississippi's governor appointed Hyde-Smith as a temporary successor.

Espy was Mississippi's first African-American congressman in the 20th century and U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton. He's running in a state that last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1982.

Espy's involvement with Gbagbo was the subject of news stories in 2010 and 2011. Documents filed with the U.S. Justice Department also show the Cocoa and Coffee Board paid Espy an initial $40,000 to travel to the West African nation and consult in December 2010, weeks after a disputed presidential election. The international community agreed that challenger Alassane Ouattara was victorious, but Gbagbo claimed he had won another term.

Espy appeared on Ivory Coast television in that country during the December 2010 visit and told The Telegraph newspaper in London that civil war threatened to resume there.

"President Gbagbo is very clear that he's not backing down," The Telegraph quoted Espy.

Espy, through a company he owned, agreed to begin working Jan. 1, 2011, to prevent the U.S. from "blacklisting" purchases of Ivorian coffee and cocoa, to advocate on "issues relating to child labor laws" and to urge the U.S. government "to investigate irregularities" in the elections, according to forms he filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

With reports of abuses against civilians by Gbagbo's security forces mounting, Washington publication The Hill questioned Espy about his work there. Espy said in a March 12, 2011, article that he had ended work in February and had only been paid $400,000.

"I have voluntarily suspended it," Espy told The Hill. "Events are spiraling rapidly. It is very difficult to work in that context."

But documents Espy filed months later showed a $350,000 payment on March 1, 2011, bringing the total to $750,000. The contract didn't end until March 15. That was 15 days before it was originally supposed to conclude.

Gbagbo surrendered in April 2011 after Ouattara's forces closed in and United Nations and French forces began fighting against him. Later that year, he was transferred to the custody of the International Criminal Court, where he stands accused of inciting murder, rape and other inhumane acts. Gbagbo denies guilt and says the court lacks evidence.

Espy resigned his Cabinet post in 1994 amid a special counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but the Mississippi Republican Party has called him "too corrupt for the Clintons."

Espy said he refused offers of plea deals.

"Of all their 70 witnesses, no one even touched me," he said Thursday.

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For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics . Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy and Emily Wagster Pettus at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .