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Ex-USDA aide gets 27 months in prison

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Saying democracy relies upon honest public officials, a federal judge Wednesday sentenced former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's ex-chief of staff to an unusually harsh 27 months in prison for making false statements.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said he departed from sentencing guidelines that called for only probation for Ronald H. Blackley because the offenses were committed when Blackley was in a top government position of trust."This court has a duty to send a message to other high government officials that there is a penalty to be paid for making false statements under oath," Lamberth said. "Our democracy depends upon trust between the people and government officials."

The judge waived any fine because Blackley is unable to pay one, but he ordered Blackley to remain on probation for three years after his release from prison.

Without specifically mentioning independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into President Clinton, Lamberth alluded to "discussions" around town about the seriousness of lying under oath.

"This should be a deterrent to other government officials," the judge said.

Starr is investigating whether Clinton tried to cover up an alleged sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Blackley was convicted in December of failing to disclose $22,000 he received from Mississippi associates who had dealings before the Agriculture Department and then trying to cover it up.

A jury found that Blackley lied on his government financial disclosure forms and then to a series of federal investigators.

Blackley said today he accepted responsibility for his actions but insisted he tried to be truthful on his forms and to the investigators.

"To the best of my knowledge, I clearly responded to the questions asked of me. I consider the statements to be true," Blackley said. "I've tried to do the best I could."