Blow to Clinton as top official resigns over 'perks' scandal

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IN ANOTHER wrenching blow to the Clinton Administration, the Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, resigned last night, following a months-long ethics controversy over his acceptance of gifts from individuals and companies under the jurisdiction of his department, and his breach of strict federal rules on the use of government cars for private purposes.

Mr Espy's departure, the second of a cabinet member during the Clinton presidency, came as the White House Counsel's Office completed an investigation into whether the former Mississippi congressman breached White House ethical guidelines. A separate probe by an independent counsel, appointed by the Justice Department, is still in progress.

In a defiant press conference last night, Mr Espy, 40, attacked the 'challenge to his good name,' which was proving a distraction to his ability to do his job. The charges, he declared, were 'unfounded and untrue,' and he would fight them vigorously.

The row began last spring with allegations that Mr Espy accepted travel, hotels and entertainment from Tyson Foods, the giant Arkansas-based poultry producer, whose ties with then Governor Clinton came under strong scrutiny during the 1992 election campaign. Since then they have widened to include Mr Espy's habit of billing the government for weekend trips home, often to visit his children, including the use of government cars.

Mr Espy said yesterday that the decision to quit was his alone. 'I've been twisting in the wind since February. I need more time to defend myself from these charges.' He plans to stay in office until the end of the year.

Nonetheless, in recent days the White House has been quietly leaning upon him to step down. Mr Espy had been a 'great Secretary of Agriculture,' the White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, declared at the weekend in what, in retrospect, has the ring of a political obituary. 'But no member of the adminstration can engage in conduct which raises questions about ethical behaviour'.

Mr Espy has never denied the substance of the charges. Indeed he has reimbursed Tyson and other companies dollars 7,600 ( pounds 4,800) for various favours, including transport, meals and football game tickets.

But he has rejected all suggestions of impropriety, insisting that what had happened had no impact on the policy of the department, or resulted in favourable treatment for Tyson, or others involved.

For an already beleaguered Mr Clinton, the resignation is a deep personal as well as political setback. Mr Espy, a moderate, had been one of the first prominent black politicians of the South to support his candidacy. He was one of four blacks in the cabinet, symbol of the 'diversity' the new Democratic President wished to bring to his government.

The timing of the affair could hardly be worse, just a month before mid-term elections, in which the Democrats are expected to suffer heavy losses.

The Espy debacle can only further blacken the image of Washington and its ways in the public mind. Making matters worse is the 'Arkansas connection', embodied by Tyson food, and which has bedevilled Mr Clinton since he entered office.