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A lie trips up head of BP

The CEO wasn't truthful as he tried to prevent publication of a former boyfriend's allegations.

LONDON - It wasn't the deaths of 15 workers at BP's Texas City plant that brought the company's chief executive officer down. Nor was it one of the largest North Slope oil spills ever at the British company's Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska.

John Browne, the man who turned BP P.L.C. into one of the world's top energy companies, fell from grace after admitting he lied to a judge when he tried to block a newspaper from printing allegations of wrongdoing made by a former boyfriend.

The admission may have been the last straw after a series of troubles at the end of a storied career. But to some, Browne's resignation as CEO illustrates the power of Britain's tabloid press - and the perils of being gay in the conservative world of big oil.

Stephen Coote, director of Britain's Gay Business Association, said "sport and business are the two last bastions" of institutional homophobia.

Browne, one of Britain's most powerful businessmen and a close associate of Prime Minister Tony Blair, resigned Tuesday after acknowledging that he lied during legal action to block the Mail on Sunday newspaper from publishing an interview with a former lover, Jeff Chevalier.

Browne, 59, told the judge that he and Chevalier, a Canadian reportedly in his 20s, had met by chance in a London park. British media outlets reported that they met through an escort service Web site.

In a statement, Browne admitted he lied to the court and said it was "a matter of deep regret."

"For the past 41 years of my career at BP, I have kept my private life separate from my business life," he said as he announced his resignation. "I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private."

Judge David Eady rejected Browne's claim for privacy, saying the tycoon's lie had fatally undermined his case.

"I am not prepared to make allowances for a 'white lie' told to the court in circumstances such as these - especially by a man who . . . refers to the various honors he has received under the present government when asking the court to prefer his account of what took place," the judge said.

Britain's scandal-loving tabloid press reveled in the story of what the Sun called "Tycoon and the Rent Boy."

"There's a ring of Greek tragedy about the downfall of Lord Browne of Madingley," the Daily Mail said in an editorial, arguing that Browne had been brought down by "a fatal flaw in his character that led him to lie in court."

The Mail on Sunday denied intruding on Browne's private life, saying it had sought to publish "a business story involving issues of great importance to shareholders and employees of BP."

Browne was accused of using BP computers and staff to help Chevalier, of using support staff to set up and then wind down a company Browne created for him to run, and of sending a senior BP employee on a personal errand to deliver cash to him.

Browne rejected the allegations, and BP said an internal inquiry had cleared him of wrongdoing.

But veteran gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell accused the newspaper of being motivated by homophobia in seeking to publish "uncorroborated kiss-and-tell revelations" about Browne.

Browne's resignation ends a high-flying career. In his 12 years at the helm of BP, the company went from minor player to global energy giant.

Browne also led attempts to fashion BP as an environmentally friendly oil company, masterminding its logo change from a shield to a flowerlike sunburst design with the slogan "Beyond Petroleum."

Despite his resignation, Browne appeared to retain the support of Britain's business community.

"He was a business icon, an absolute pillar of the economy and society," said David Buik of brokers BGC Partners Inc. "What happened to him yesterday can only be described as a tragedy."