Democrats get a chance for revenge as Bush's men face sleaze investigations

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Vice-President Dick Cheney and another senior member of George Bush's administration are threatened with ethics investigations over the propriety of their ties with big business.

The allegations by a government watchdog yesterday end a five-month honeymoon for the new President, who had made "restoring honour and dignity to the White House" the cornerstone of his election campaign.

Mr Cheney's energy task force is accused of giving preferential access to industry representatives at the expense of consumers and environmental groups. The inquiry has been launched by the General Accounting Office (GAO), a non-party congressional watchdog, at the request of a Democratic Congressman, Henry Waxman. Mr Cheney, like Mr Bush, is a former oilman and was chief executive of Halliburton, a Texas oil-equipment conglomerate, before his election as Vice-President.

The disclosure about the GAO investigation came as Democrats amplified their calls for an inquiry into the conduct of Mr Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, and his relations with the computer chip giant, Intel.

Mr Rove has admitted meeting Intel executives in his White House office in March, in connection with a merger of hi-tech companies for which they sought the administration's approval. Mr Rove held $100,000 of Intel shares at the time.

The Democrats' newly won control of the Senate gives them the power to initiate inquiries into the conduct of the administration, a power that Republicans repeatedly used to place the former president, Bill Clinton, under almost perpetual investigation. And while the new majority leader, Tom Daschle, said he would not stoop to using his majority to retaliate in kind, he has not discouraged others from pressing their case.

Clearly scenting danger ahead, Mr Bush made a speedy defence of Mr Rove, saying that his confidence in his chief strategist had "never been greater". A spokesman insisted that Mr Rove had distanced himself from discussions with Intel and directed its representatives to others in the White House better equipped to discuss their request than he was. Other participants in the meeting, however, told Newsweek that they had no such recollection.

The GAO investigation could cast doubt on the claims of Mr Cheney and his commission to have given fair hearings to all sides as they were compiling their energy policy report. The Vice-President's office has also responded in a way perilously reminiscent of the Clinton White House: it has refused to produce the minutes and notes of meetings, citing the need for administration discussions to remain confidential ­ in other words, "executive privilege".

Mr Bush's very public promises to run a scandal-free White House mean that the slightest whiff of ethical violations by members of his administration constitutes a political risk.

With several cabinet members, including the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, still not divested of all their multimillion dollar shareholdings, Mr Rove and Mr Cheney are unlikely to be the last Bush associates to come under scrutiny.