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Clinton appointee faces jail

Mike Espy, who served as agriculture secretary in President Clinton's first administration, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including accepting large sums of money from major US food producers in return for political favours. He is is the first member of Mr Clinton's Cabinet to be subject to federal criminal charges, and could face a long term, even life, in prison.

While several of Mr Espy's associates have already been indicted in related cases, and it was considered only a matter of time before the net closed around him as well, the extent of the charges and the identities of the companies implicated in the scandal came as a surprise even to seasoned Washington observers when they were disclosed yesterday.

Among the companies from which Mr Espy is accused of "soliciting, receiving and accepting" gifts, are Tysons Foods, a big chicken producer based in Mr Clinton's home state of Arkansas, the giant Quaker Oats company, and a Washington-based consultancy. Mr Espy is charged additionally with trying to cover up the extent of the corruption and trying to reimburse some of the companies after the investigation began.

On the international scale of corruption, the gifts - parties, all-expenses- paid weekends away, tickets to sporting events, amount to an estimated total of $35,000 (pounds 20,600) - may appear small.

The very fact of receiving them, however, and the directness of the alleged links between the gifts and the favours rendered, constitute a heinous crime in the United States, where strict rules govern the conduct of officials, especially those in the federal government.

Although it is three years since Mr Espy resigned, his indictment will be bad news for Mr Clinton. It adds to the atmosphere of sleaze that surrounded the President's first administration and which persists in the ongoing Whitewater and party funding investigations.

It came, moreover, on the same day that a newspaper published records showing incontrovertibly that Vice-President Al Gore broke the rules by soliciting campaign contributions from his White House office. The White House, as federal property, is not supposed to be used for party political purposes.