The House ethics committee announced yesterday it has started a formal probe into Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and her dealings with a West African millionaire she tried to get out of prison.

The four-person investigative subcommittee will examine Brown's conduct in two incidents: Gambian tycoon Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko's gift of a $50,000 Lexus automobile to the congresswoman's daughter Shantrel in 1997, and lodging Brown herself received that year "at premises owned or controlled by" the businessman.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and ranking member Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) said in a statement that the panel would explore "the relationship, if any, between the lodging or car and Representative Brown's status or actions as a member of Congress."

In her own statement yesterday, Brown said she has been forced to endure "a series of baseless allegations about my conduct." She said she expected the charges would eventually be "put to rest."

In January 1997, Sissoko pleaded guilty to bribing a U.S. Customs Service agent concerning the export of two helicopters, and was sentenced to a four-month prison term and house arrest.

Brown lobbied both Attorney General Janet Reno and her colleagues to deport Sissoko rather than forcing him to serve his sentence, but was unsuccessful. Brown also visited the businessman in prison, and the St. Petersburg Times has reported that federal officials have investigated whether Brown stayed in one of Sissoko's condominiums while lobbying to free him.

After the Times and other Florida papers reported on Brown's relationship with Sissoko last year, Shantrel Brown sold the Lexus and donated the proceeds to charity.

The allegations dogged Brown as she sought reelection last year, drawing a fierce challenge from black Republican Bill Randall. But Brown, who represents a district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, won reelection with 56 percent of the vote.

The ethics committee also determined that "no further investigative action is warranted with respect to other issues" related to Brown, though it failed to specify what those issues were.

Brown had come under fire for failing to report she had received $10,000 from a secret bank account controlled by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to bus supporters to Tallahassee to demonstrate the day of a court hearing over whether to redraw her congressional district's boundaries.