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Attorney General Janet Reno said Tuesday that she had asked a panel of federal appeals court judges to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy illegally accepted travel, lodging, entertainment and other gifts from the country's largest poultry producer.

In an application to the special three-judge panel Monday, Reno said that an initial inquiry showed that further investigation was warranted into Espy's association with Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas-based agricultural empire, and other companies with business before the Agriculture Department.Espy, a former Democratic House member from Mississippi, has strongly denied wrongdoing but has declined to discuss the matters under scrutiny.

Tuesday, his lawyers issued a statement that said: "Secretary Espy has never misused his office in any way. There has been no misconduct in this case at all."

Most of the gifts to Espy under examination have been relatively small and some have been repaid. Reno's application to the court said that no evidence had been uncovered to suggest that Espy had accepted the gifts in return for his performance of any official act.

Some officials said that the potential violations under investigation appear relatively minor, but that Reno had little choice under the statute but to seek the appointment of an outside prosecutor.

Other investigators regard the issues as potentially more serious, involving a pattern of possible ethical violations that may have influenced Agriculture Department policies.

The independent counsel will be appointed by the same panel of judges that last Friday threw the Whitewater inquiry into turmoil by naming Kenneth W. Starr to replace Robert B. Fiske Jr., as the chief prosecutor on the case.

Reno's decision means that the Clinton administration must simultaneously manage two high-profile inquiries by independent counsels as it battles to make headway on its domestic and foreign policy agendas.

The investigation is potentially troubling for the Clinton administration because of its focus on Espy's dealings with Tyson Foods, whose president, Don Tyson, has long been a supporter of Clinton.