Hinting strongly that he had been toppled by meat-industry bigwigs dead set against reform, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said he would resign effective December 31. Espy is under investigation by an independent counsel because of allegations he improperly accepted gifts from companies that do business with his department. He denied any wrongdoing, and said he was leaving to devote all his resources to his defense. Espy is the second Clinton cabinet member to resign, following Les Aspin's exit from Defense, but the first to do so under a cloud of ethical misbehavior. Espy's alleged misdeeds: receiving free tickets, lodging and travel from a corporation he also regulated, and using government money to lease a car he drove on his time off.WHY NOW? Espy has since repaid more than $7,600 in expenses. But the payback didn't quiet critics, who were waiting for the results from an independent counsel's investigation. What probably bumped Espy out of the Administration, however, was a White House counsel's investigation into the matter. "We were expecting the counsel's report this week," says TIME Washington correspondent Michael Duffy. "Perhaps it didn't look so good."