Gift inquiry embarrasses the White House

WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration faced fresh embarrassment yesterday after the Justice Department approved an investigation into allegations that the Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, received illegal gifts, writes David Usborne

Mr Espy, a former congressman from Mississippi is accused of accepting gifts, free travel and accomodation from Tyson Foods, an Arkansas-based poultry giant which also has had close ties with the President and his First Lady.

The step was taken by the Attorney-General, Janet Reno, who on Tuesday formally requested the appointment by a panel of judges of an independent counsel to ascertain whether gifts were received and if favours from the Agriculture Department were promised in return. The investigation is likely to focus on two trips made by Mr Espy to Tyson events in Arkansas and Texas. 'All this can be explained,' Mr Espy told journalists yesterday. While offering no details, he said. 'I am confident I will be cleared.' With the shadow of Whitewater already looming over the White House, a second probe into the cabinet will hardly be welcome to Mr Clinton.

It will not help that the Tyson Foods president, Don Tyson, has been a long-time supporter of Mr Clinton and that the company's legal advisor, Jim Blair, helped Hillary Rodham Clinton reap remarkable profits on the cattle futures exchange in the 1970s.

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