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Mandelson mired in passport row

Mandelson
Mandelson maintains he did nothing wrong  

LONDON, England -- Prime Minister Tony Blair's closest political ally is defending himself against claims that he helped secure a British passport for an Indian business tycoon who gave money to the Millennium Dome.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, who has already been forced to resign from government once, admits talking to a Home Office minister in 1998 about a passport application by Srichand Hinduja.

But he insists he had neither supported nor sponsored the application.

"An innocent inquiry was made in a two minute phone conversation facilitated by civil servants and monitored by them," he said. "That is the beginning and end of this story."

Hinduja, and his brothers Gopichand and Prakash, are now in India for questioning over corruption allegations.

The billionaire brothers, whose business interests span media, banking, oil and chemicals, deny any wrongdoing.

Mandelson spoke to Home Office minister Mike O'Brien about the process of passport requests, having met Hinduja at a party.

Blair's official spokesman leapt to Mandelson's defence, saying he had merely passed inquiries on to the relevant department.

"There is nothing improper at all in Peter having been approached at an event," Alastair Campbell said.

But he was forced to admit that the government's line earlier in the week -- that Mandelson had been asked to get involved but had failed to do so -- was not strictly accurate.

Campbell added that he had received a similar approach from Prakash Hinduja last year which has not led to an application.

Mandelson, the archetypal spin doctor, was widely credited as the architect of the Labour party's 1997 election victory in which Blair won the biggest parliamentary majority in Britain for 150 years.

But he was forced to resign from government in 1998 when it was discovered he had borrowed a large sum from ex-minister and millionaire Geoffrey Robinson to help buy a house.

Mandelson failed to declare the money to his home loan company. His department was investigating Robinson's business affairs at the time.

Blair brought him back into the fold within a year, making him Northern Ireland Secretary.

Srichand Hinduja received British citizenship in 1999, having been turned down years earlier.

Opposition MPs, and the British media, are pursuing a possible connection with the brothers' one million pound donation to sponsor one of the zones in London's ill-fated Millennium Dome.

Mandelson was minister in charge of the Dome in 1998.

"This seems to be a case of... buying a very expensive entry ticket to the Dome and getting nationality in return," Liberal Democrat politician Norman Baker told parliament.

Mandelson said opposition claims of wrongdoing were "simply not borne out by the facts."

The Millennium Dome, which closed after a year, was an embarrassment for the government after failing to reach visitor targets by a wide margin and gobbling up nearly a billion pounds in public money.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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