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Report pushes Prince Charles' top aide out

Prince Charles' closest aide resigned Thursday after publication of an official report into charges of royal intervention in the trial of Princess Diana's former butler and charges that members of the prince's staff peddled gifts and covered up accusations of sexual violence within the royal household.

Michael Fawcett, 40, whom the heir to the throne had once called the indispensable member of his courtly retinue but whom competitors in St. James' Palace called "Fawcett the Fence," quit after he was found to have bent palace rules and accepted undisclosed perks and hospitality.

The report, by Prince Charles' private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, uncovered no serious wrongdoing by Fawcett or his colleagues, but expressed misgivings about staff practices.

The internal inquiry was ordered in November after the collapse of the trial of Princess Diana's former butler Paul Burrell on charges of plundering her estate. Burrell was cleared when the court was informed midtrial that Queen Elizabeth II had known all along that he was holding the princess' belongings for safekeeping.

The queen's intervention prompted a torrent of charges that the monarchy had acted to avoid embarrassing disclosures, but Thursday's report said that neither courtiers to the queen nor those of Prince Charles had engaged in "improper conduct" over the trial.

"The suggestion that the disclosure was made for an improper motive and in the expectation of preventing the trial continuing finds no support in the available evidence," the report concluded.

The document said that allegations in 1996 by a valet, George Smith, that he had been raped by a courtier had not, as was charged, been deliberately covered up by Prince Charles' royal household. But it said the charge had been handled too "dismissively."

It concluded that there was anxiety about keeping the allegation from public knowledge but also belief that there was no truth to it.

"There was not, therefore, an improper coverup in the sense that those involved deliberately or dishonestly sought to suppress what they believed to be, or thought, might be true," the report said. The inquiry did not attempt to determine whether Smith's charge was true.

The Peat inquiry found that the staff accepted gifts and hospitality from outsiders despite rules forbidding it and that 19 of 180 official gifts to the prince were missing. It did not find any evidence that courtiers had sold gifts or made commissions from sales.

The inquiry gathered information from 59 people, including the prince but no other member of the royal family.

The prince, who arrived in Bulgaria on Thursday on an official visit, said in a statement, "The review does not make comfortable reading in some parts, but I accept full responsibility and all the recommendations." He added, "I am determined that the administrative procedures in my household should be to the highest standards."

The inquiry said that Fawcett was lax in accepting numerous gifts, including a watch worth $4,000 and a club membership worth $4,800, without declaring them. But it cleared him of any financial impropriety, saying he could not be severely criticized because the rules were not normally enforced and he had made no secret of the gifts.

The 111-page document was largely a dry exposition of sloppy record-keeping, loose administration and bureaucratic foul-ups, largely attributed to people working with few resources under pressure and with little guidance or regulation.

Peat said that Fawcett's buoyant personality and rapid rise in the ranks might have unsheathed the daggers of fellow courtiers.

"His robust approach to dealing with some people combined, perhaps, with his having been promoted from a relatively junior position within the household, undoubtedly caused jealousy and friction," the report said. "This has encouraged some to voice rumors as to his financial probity; but they are just that, rumors."

Although he is quitting the royal staff, Fawcett will continue to work for the prince on a freelance basis.

Peat said he anticipated charges that his report was a whitewash, but argued that it disclosed "serious failures" in royal practices and would result in significant reforms.

"I am not going to make any excuses," he said. "Things have not been well handled in this office. The Prince of Wales has said that he wants everything to be sorted out."