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UK's defense minister apologizes over access row

British Defense Secretary Liam Fox speaks at a joint news conference with Libya's de facto leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the governing National Transitional Council, and Italian Defense Secretary Ignazio La Russa, not seen. in Tripoli, Libya, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. With NATO warplanes circling overhead, revolutionary fighters battled block by block Saturday as snipers rained fire from rooftops in fierce street fighting in Moammar Gadhafi's hometown - the most important remaining bastion of support for the fugitive leader. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox speaks at a joint news conference with Libya's de facto leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the governing National Transitional Council, and Italian Defense Secretary Ignazio La Russa, not seen. in Tripoli, Libya, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. With NATO warplanes circling overhead, revolutionary fighters battled block by block Saturday as snipers rained fire from rooftops in fierce street fighting in Moammar Gadhafi's hometown - the most important remaining bastion of support for the fugitive leader. (AP Photo/Abdel Magid al-Fergany)
By David Stringer
Associated Press / October 10, 2011

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LONDON—Britain's defense minister acknowledged Monday that he had met with a friend who worked as an industry consultant 40 times since taking his post, including on overseas visits.

A government inquiry is examining whether Liam Fox broke government rules in allowing his friend and best man, Adam Werritty, access to Britain's defense ministry buildings, overseas trips and sensitive details of his schedule.

The minister, who last week insisted allegations against him were "baseless," told lawmakers that over the last 16 months Werritty had visited him at the defense ministry on 22 occasions and had been present during 18 trips overseas.

Fox has previously said in response to questions that Werritty had not traveled overseas as part of official delegations, but did not elaborate. He told the House of Commons on Monday that he had actually often met his friend during visits aboard, when they were present at the same international conferences, or during personal downtime on trips to other countries.

He said Werritty had also joined his family holidays.

"I accept that it was a mistake to allow the distinction to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and personal loyalties to a friend," Fox told the House of Commons in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers have demanded to know whether Werritty, who previously ran a now-defunct defense consultancy called Security Futures, profited from his ties to Fox.

Fox confirmed that, without the knowledge of government officials, Werritty had fixed a meeting in Dubai in June with Harry Boulter, chief executive of Porton Capital investment fund, to discuss possible business with the defense ministry.

Fox said he should not have had a meeting with a potential commercial supplier without a ministry official present. "This was entirely my fault and I take full responsibility for it," Fox said.

Aides to Fox said Werritty has told the minister he has not profited personally from arranging the meeting, or from their friendship.

However, the defense ministry has acknowledged it does not know which companies were clients of Werritty, so it cannot yet assess whether he was involved in arranging access to Fox for other business executives.

Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that Fox is likely to survive the furor.

"He said he has made a mistake, he has got something wrong. He has apologized about that," said Cameron, who discussed the issue with Fox in a phone call Sunday.

"I am sure that we can answer these questions and come through beyond it," he added. "We are not rushing these things."

Last week, Fox told Ursula Brennan, the most senior civil servant in the defense ministry, to investigate the claims against him and produce a report by Oct. 21.

In interim findings provided to Cameron's office Monday, Brennan said Fox had acknowledged it had been wrong for his officials to provide Werritty with details of visits overseas -- usually regarded as sensitive information because of the security implications.

Brennan said that, in the future, Fox's ministry and other departments need "to ensure that a clear distinction is made between party political, personal and government business."

In a statement, Cameron's office said Brennan's report showed "no classified or other defense related official information was discussed with or given to Mr. Werritty."

The head of the civil service, Gus O'Donnell, will assist Brennan in completing her inquiry before Cameron must decide whether Fox breached Britain's ministerial code, and rule on whether any action is necessary.

Under standards rules, ministers are expected to make sure "that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests."

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