Click. Hillary's brothers, two furious presidents and a hazelnut deal in the land of the Golden Fleece

Click. Put down that apathy sandwich – trafficking is your problem

Click. Critic of junk food becomes hero of French resistance

Click. Search for Earhart Called Badly Botched

Click. Sonoma Judge Boyd reverses Kimball ruling Priest molest charges OK'd


Click. Former Nun to Argue for Clinton Disbarment.

Click. Sicilian who killed anti-Mafia priest invited to Vatican

Sicilian who killed anti-Mafia priest invited to Vatican
By Associated Press, 6/29/2000 10:42

VATICAN CITY (AP) The gunman serving a 16-year prison sentence for killing a
Sicilian priest has been invited to the Vatican to appear Saturday on a television program.

Salvatore Grigoli confessed in 1997 to shooting the Rev. Giuseppe Puglisi in 1993 on orders from mobsters. Puglisi, who campaigned against the Mafia, was slain just a few months after Pope John Paul II toured Sicily and urged priests to speak out in the battle against organized crime.

Grigoli has been asked to participate in the televised program to talk about his alleged repentance and newfound faith, Monsignor Ugo Moretto, director-general of CTV, the Vatican's television unit, said Thursday.

''He spilled the blood'' of a priest and now ''he has been converted,'' he said. Organizers were awaiting final permission from the Italian justice ministry to allow Grigoli to participate, he said.

Police were expected to escort the convict to the Vatican and then back to prison.

The program was to be taped in the Vatican auditorium where John Paul often holds his weekly audiences. The pope was not expected to attend Saturday night's program.

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Former Nun to Argue for Clinton Disbarment.
By James Jefferson © 2000 The Independent, London

The woman selected to argue that President Bill Clinton isn't fit to be a lawyer is a former nun who this year was successful in removing an Arkansas judge from office.

In an unprecedented rebuke of a sitting U.S. president, an Arkansas Supreme Court committee on Friday sued Clinton to strip him of his law license, saying he was dishonest during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and lacked "overall fitness" to be a lawyer.

The committee's lawsuit accused the president of engaging in serious misconduct in the Lewinsky affair, including false testimony, that "damages the legal profession."

"The conduct of Mr. Clinton ... was motivated by a desire to protect himself from the embarrassment of his own conduct," the court's Committee on Professional Conduct wrote.

The five–page lawsuit asks that Clinton be disbarred for conducting "himself in a manner that violates the model rules of professional conduct as adopted by the Arkansas Supreme Court."

The president has 30 days to respond, and his private attorney vowed a vigorous fight to retain the law license.

"We fundamentally disagree with the complaint filed today and will defend vigorously against it," attorney David Kendall said in a statement released by the White House.

The Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct selected Marie–Bernarde Miller of Little Rock to handle its case against Clinton.

A judge has yet to be assigned to the case to oversee the gathering of evidence and the trial. The judge alone will decide whether Clinton should be allowed to practice law. Either side can appeal the judge's decision to the state Supreme Court.

With appeals, it is unlikely the case will be resolved before Clinton leaves office.

Miller is a graduate of the all–girl Mount St. Mary Academy at Little Rock and was a member of the Roman Catholic Religious Sisters of Mercy from the early 1970s to 1986. She has since worked for a civil rights attorney, the Pulaski County prosecutor's office and been a former state assistant attorney general.

The professional conduct committee hired her June 7 – a week after the state Supreme Court upheld the ousting of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morris Thompson, who was accused of practicing law while a judge, writing bad checks and failing to pay income taxes.

She has declined interview requests that go beyond her confirming her appointment.

James Badami, director of the judicial discipline panel, said he hired Miller for the Thompson case because of her reputation as a hard–driving trial lawyer.

"She's professionally competent and very hard–working," Badami said. "She had the credentials to do the job – extensive trial experience, a very good professional reputation for competency and ability as an attorney, and a reputation for being tenacious and always doing the right thing."

Miller, 48, earned a bachelor's degree in American government in 1975 from Maryville College in St. Louis and a law degree from the University of Kansas in 1984. 

SONOMA JUDGE JOHN GALLAGHER REMOVED FROM BENCH. State court agency confirms investigation of complaint

Jul. 1, 2000, By CLARK MASON © Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer

Longtime Sonoma County Judge John Gallagher has been removed from the bench pending an investigation into a complaint by a judicial assistant.

Gallagher retired three years ago but has continued to serve on a part-time basis both in Sonoma County and elsewhere across the state.

Although he declined to discuss the nature of the complaint, presiding Judge Laurence K. Sawyer confirmed that the state Administrative Office of the Courts is conducting an investigation.

The results of the investigation will be forwarded to California Chief Justice Ron George for a final determination.

Courthouse sources said the complaint involved sexual comments made to at least one female employee.

A telephone call to Gallagher was returned Friday by his attorney, Michael Senneff.

"My take, from what we've gleaned, is that we're dealing with a comment apparently made, that was taken the wrong way by someone Judge Gallagher has considered a longtime friend," Senneff said.

He added that "there was no sexual suggestion, touching, or overtures" by Gallagher. "If it was a misunderstanding, he's very sorry about it."

The court employee who made the complaint declined to be interviewed and Senneff refused to provide more details about the offending comment.

Senneff said Gallagher, 62, has been candid and cooperated fully with the inquiry by the the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Gallagher retired in 1997 after being a full-time judge in Sonoma County for more than 21 years. He now works as an "assigned judge," filling in for other judges around the state.

Because he is retired, the complaint against him is being investigated by the Administrative Office of the Courts rather than the Council on Judicial Performance, which handles complaints made against active judges.

Lynn Holton, a spokeswoman for the courts, said complaints about assigned judges are confidential. "However, I would also say we take complaints of judges very seriously and they are looked into carefully."

Holton said her agency is not qualified to administer discipline, but can remove a judge from the program if a complaint is sustained.

Gallagher hasn't been assigned to cases in Sonoma County since the complaint was filed several months ago. Neither Sawyer nor Holton could say if he is handling cases in other counties.

Sawyer said because it is a personnel matter he cannot discuss the complaint. But he acknowledged that investigators came to Santa Rosa several months ago to look into it and interview people, including Gallagher.

"As of yet, I haven't been informed as to what action they're taking on the matter, if any," Sawyer said.

Senneff said Friday that "everything is in limbo" for the time being.

Gallagher also works as a private judge for Resolution Remedies, which is headquartered in San Rafael. The firm has a roster of more than a dozen retired judges and other professionals for mediation and arbitration of civil matters in Northern California.

"He's absolutely one of our top-notch settlement judges. He's very popular. He has a high percentage of settlement," said Diane Levinson-Fass, president of Resolution Remedies.

She said Gallagher is paid $300 an hour as a private judge for the company and keeps busy, handling about three cases each week.

On Friday, Levinson-Fass said she was unaware a complaint had been filed against Gallagher. She said she was shocked, but his job is not in jeopardy with her company.

"It would not affect my relationship with him or Resolution Remedies," she said. "He has quite a following. He's well thought of. I've never found him to be suggestive. He's a perfect gentleman, caring and sincere."

As a judge, Gallagher presided over 50 homicide cases and five death penalty cases, more than any other judge in Sonoma County. In his heyday, attorneys say Gallagher was one of the county's brightest judges, glib and quick-witted.

But observers noticed a change, especially after Gallagher went through a personal crisis in the 1990s after learning that his son was molested by Catholic priest Gary Timmons.

Gallagher, a devout Catholic, was angry and grief stricken at the way church authorities reacted to the incident. He left the church.

In recent years, Gallagher has become known for wisecracks and rambling monologues. Some of his asides have created problems.

In 1997, for example, a state appellate court overturned a spousal assault conviction because of Gallagher's impromptu speech urging jurors to "do something about what's happening to society."

His remarks were about the effect of violence on TV and in the movies on children. The appellate court said jurors could not have avoided seeing the connection to their case, which involved accusations of violence in front of the woman's children.

Judge reverses Kimball ruling Priest molest charges OK'd

Jun. 30, 2000 By CLARK MASON © 2000 Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer

A Sonoma County judge reinstated two child molesting charges Thursday against Catholic priest Don Kimball, reversing a ruling that they were too old to pursue.

Judge Robert Boyd's decision brought gasps and cries of approval from the alleged victims, including one woman who says Kimball raped her in 1977.

Boyd sided with prosecutors, who argued that a state law eliminating the statute of limitations for child molesting cases should apply to Kimball.

Boyd overturned a May 10 decision by Judge Frank Passalacqua, who ruled that the law applied to only two of the four criminal charges against Kimball.

Kimball's attorney said the latest decision will be appealed, but his accusers expressed relief at Boyd's decision.

Mary Agbayani, who claims she was raped behind a church altar by Kimball when she was 13 years old, said Boyd's ruling reaffirms the intent of the state Legislature when it allowed prosecutors to pursue sex crimes involving children years after the fact.

"Most molest victims don't speak out until they're adults, when they get their power back," Agbayani said. "The perpetrators have to face their day in court and the consequences of what they did years ago."

Joanne Brem, the mother of Ellen Brem, who claims she was molested at age 13 by Kimball in 1981, said, "Today felt like a victory for us. But we still have a long road to walk."

Prosecutor Gary Medvigy said it's been an emotional roller coaster for the women. "This is a big, big decision. It was a terrible letdown for them when charges were first thrown out."

Kimball, 56, faces three counts of lewd conduct and one count of forcible rape, which could subject him to a total of 15 years in prison.

Although he remains a priest, he has been placed on inactive status by the church and is unable to administer religious sacraments.

Kimball declined comment Thursday.

In an interview earlier this year, he denied any misconduct and suggested the charges against him are motivated by money.

The criminal counts against Kimball involve two victims -- Brem and Agbayani -- but the complaint also alleges that he abused nine additional victims.

Prosecutors said charges weren't filed in those cases because the offenses took place in other jurisdictions or because the victims were at least 14 years old.

The law eliminating the statute of limitations applies to victims who were 13 or younger at the time of the offense.

One of the additional victims identified in the charges against Kimball is Lorraine Brunz, 40, of Petaluma, who claims she was first molested by Kimball in 1976 when she was 16 years old.

Brunz was present in court Thursday for Boyd's ruling. "I'm very pleased," she said afterward.

Brunz and Brem were among the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church that was settled earlier this year for $1.6 million.

Agbayani was a witness in that case.

Kimball looked disappointed following the ruling and his attorney, Chris Andrian, said he will appeal the decision.

Andrian maintains that a 1995 ruling by the state Court of Appeal holds that prosecutors cannot revive child molest cases whose statute of limitations ran out prior to Jan. 1, 1985.

Because there was a six-year statute of limitations on sex crimes in 1977, Andrian says the clock for prosecuting some of the charges against Kimball ran out in 1983.

Medvigy disagreed, arguing that revisions by the state Legislature and a Supreme Court decision last year allowed the law to be applied retroactively to cases such as the one against Kimball.

Passalacqua sided with Andrian last month but Boyd ruled for the prosecution on appeal.

"It's clear to me the courts are going to have to resolve this issue," Andrian said. "There's obviously a difference of opinion among judges here and between myself and the prosecution.

"This will have to be resolved at another level."

Andrian has 30 days to file an appeal of Boyd's ruling. He said he will try to get a court order to prevent the preliminary hearing against Kimball from going forward until the issue is resolved.

Search for Earhart Called Badly Botched
Coast Guard accused of defaming flier in coverup

© 2000

Sixty-three years after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific on her round-the-world tour, new research suggests that the famed aviatrix and her navigator could have been rescued.

An article in the June issue of the research journal Naval History reveals that the U.S. Coast Guard bungled its job so badly -- and then tried to cover it up -- that it was at least partly to blame for Earhart's disappearance.

``It's a classic cover-your-butt scenario,'' said Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, the leading Earhart research group.

``I think this article raises a point that needed raising, which is that the Coast Guard's role in all this is not as pristine as it's always been presented,'' he said. ``There were definite problems with their conduct.''

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, left Oakland on May 20, 1937, for a round-the-world trip. Then, 63 years ago today, the plane disappeared on the third-to-last leg of the journey, a 2,500-mile stretch from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, a flat, treeless strip of sand in the South Pacific.

Earhart's Electra plane was about 200 miles from Howland Island when she started communicating with officers aboard the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland to assist with her arrival.

This, according to the article in Naval History, is when things started to go terribly wrong.

Among the numerous gaffes detailed in the article:

-- Earhart was using one radio frequency, and the Coast Guard was using another. The Coast Guard was listening when Earhart expected them to be transmitting, and vice versa.

-- The Coast Guard had access to a high-frequency radio that could have reached Earhart but didn't use it.

-- Howland Island was actually 5.8 nautical miles from where Earhart's chart said it was, and the Coast Guard neglected to tell her this.

-- In the search-and-rescue operation, the Coast Guard only combed about a third of the area it should have, and at night, when it wasn't possible to see much.

While trying to locate Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan's radio transmissions ended abruptly, and no one heard from them again. Their plane was never found, but the main theories are that they ran out of gas and crashed in the ocean or they landed on nearby Gardner's Island, possibly living as castaways for a while before dying.

Most of the search and communication failings fall on the shoulders of Commander Warren K. Thompson. According to the article, Thompson must have suspected that he had botched the job, because in logs and reports to supervisors, he lied about many of the facts and, for good measure, threw in a few fabrications.

In other correspondence, he blamed Earhart's piloting skills and implied that she was at least partly to responsible for her plane going down.

The Coast Guard was apparently so embarrassed by the Itasca's performance that it sealed many of the relevant documents. The records were finally unopened in 1988 through the Freedom of Information Act.

Thompson died of a heart attack in 1939, but since the Naval History article was published, the Coast Guard has begun looking into the allegations at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

``Our historian's office is aware of the article, and we're reviewing our own documents to see if they support it,'' said Commander Jim McPherson of the public affairs office. ``It's too early to tell if there are any discrepancies.''

The author of the article, John P. Riley of Lake Mary, Fla., is retired from a career in radio propagation and antennas. He said he started looking into the radio details of Earhart's disappearance out of curiosity. The more he unearthed, he said, ``I began to realize that something was really wrong.''

``Thompson had been commended highly. But I was absolutely shocked at some of the things he did, and bewildered as to why he did them,'' Riley said.

The article took 3 1/2 years to research. In addition to poring over old radio logs and other material, Riley interviewed many of the radiomen who were on Howland Island and the Itasca at the time of the Earhart operation.

Naval History magazine is published by the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent nonprofit on the campus of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., that serves as an open forum for military researchers. Riley's article was extensively fact- checked, said editor in chief Fred Schultz.

Gillespie, the TIGHAR Earhart expert, disputed a few of Riley's technical details but concurred with the gist of the story. He said that Riley didn't go far enough and that Thompson messed up the job even more than his Naval History article indicates.

Neither Riley nor Gillespie believe that Thompson's errors were malicious. They believe he probably made a series of bad decisions, panicked and tried to cover them up.

``Here's this guy, just doing his job, and he's assigned to meet Amelia Earhart in the middle of the Pacific,'' Gillespie said. ``Suddenly, America's sweetheart of the air disappears on his watch. A close reading of the logs show that those guys were really scrambling.''

Jerry Hamilton of Castro Valley, an expert on the navigator and former Piedmont resident Fred Noonan, said Riley's article ``is the first time I've seen anything that suggests the Coast Guard wasn't doing its job 110 percent, although I've always had my suspicions.''

No one was willing to say that Earhart and Noonan definitely could have been rescued if Thompson hadn't blown his assignment, but they did say that the article vindicates Earhart and Noonan's piloting skills.

Due partly to the Coast Guard's coverup, many people had believed that the pair crashed because Earhart was a poor pilot and Noonan was an alcoholic.

``A lot of things happened that were beyond their control, and they had a lot of bad luck,'' Hamilton said. ``What this article means is that we can now say conclusively that Amelia Earhart was a pretty good pilot and Fred Noonan was one of the best air navigators of his day.''

Critic of junk food becomes hero of French resistance
By Patrick Bishop in Millau

THOUSANDS of demonstrators descended on a peaceful medieval French town yesterday to show their support for a man who has become an international symbol of resistance to globalisation.

A huge cheer went up as José Bové arrived at the Palais de Justice in Millau, south-west France, to stand trial with nine others for vandalising a McDonald's restaurant being built on the edge of the town. Bové, a local sheep farmer and founder of the Confederation Paysanne smallholders' union, faces up to five years in prison and a fine of £50,000 if found guilty.

Magistrates were under considerable pressure to be lenient. Bové's protest has made him one of the most popular figures in France and politicians from all sides have praised him. He also has become a popular figure with a worldwide coalition of Greens, Left-wingers and fringe groups after he led protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle last year. More than 10,000 people drifted through the hot streets of Millau, in the Aveyron department, yesterday as the town echoed to drum bands.

Banners, placards and posters proclaimed the crowd's opposition to la malbouffe (junk food), nitrates, genetically modified crops, multinationals and centralised government. Bové's supporters included middle-aged and elderly couples with "The world is not a commodity" T-shirts and people with dreadlocks and tattoos. One banner said: "We are all Aveyron Peasants." Anti-globalisation campaigners from India and America attended to show their support, together with French politicians, including the Communist Party leader Robert Hue.

Along the banks of the Tarn river flowing through the town, local producers set up stalls selling sausage, ham, wine and the Roquefort cheese for which the Aveyron region is famous. Bové, 47, was born into a middle-class family in Bordeaux and grew up partly on an American campus where his parents taught agronomy. His political activism began when he was 20. He is a veteran of Seventies street politics who switched to rural agitation in the Eighties, taking part in a successful campaign to block the extension of a military training area near Millau.

In 1987 he founded the Confederation Paysanne in opposition to the main farmers' union, the FNSA. His persona, underlined by his pipe and Asterix moustache, is that of a placid peasant, slow to anger but provoked beyond endurance by the relentless depredations of the multinationals and their political allies. The last straw came when America imposed tariffs against European agricultural products, including Roquefort, to retaliate against a European Union ban on hormone-treated American beef.

Last August he led a crowd of 300 local farmers to the McDonald's and tried to dismantle it. He gave himself up to police, but was jailed for 19 days after refusing to be bailed. Before the opening of yesterday's trial he said: "Any sentence would be unacceptable. The verdict will be political. We are fighting for the dismissal of this case." Nathalie Marty, the magistrate at the original hearing, has accused Bové's supporters of intimidation. She said: "José Bové is not above the law."

Leading French politicians, including Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister, say they sympathise with him. He complimented Bové on his "strong and vigorous personality". The French, he said, remained a "people of Gallic origin. I'm not very pro-McDonald's". Yesterday there were no Big Macs to be had at the McDonald's, perched forlornly by a roundabout. It has closed for two days. Riot police stood guard and, in a field below, technicians rigged the lighting for a free concert in honour of a man turned into a hero by the globalisation of information.

Put down that apathy sandwich – trafficking is your problem ,

With an increasing amount of uniformity in our lives, and the global village ever shrinking until, I suspect, it will become one big global cottage in which we all get drunk, have a row and shoot each other, we seem to be picking up some very nasty habits from other parts of the world. One of them is that we are failing to stop the flow of individuals being trafficked into this country for the sexual use of this country's citizens.

Now think hard. Are we talking trafficking in men, women or children here? I know it's a stupid question. But it's because it is so obvious who the victims are going to be, that it's hardly worth asking. Yes, once again women are the sexual currency in the lives of men, and although we are beginning to dis- cover that children are involved in this trade, the fact that the "goods" are women means it is possible for most people to continue on down the road of indifference, stopping off occasionally at the "Not My Problem" café for an apathy sandwich. Although if it comes to light that enough newsworthy – and more importantly, "attractive" – children are involved in this human smuggling, I'm sure the tabloids will get going in a, "Glitter is an evil, bald pervert" sort of way.

Does his baldness make him any more of a pervert, I asked myself as I perused that erudite headline this week. Would a fine head of hair have brought this receptacle of hate back into the fold? Nope, that's about as likely to happen as a lorryload of Albanian hod carriers being found in a juggernaut at Dover bound for prostitutional penury on the executive estates of Surrey. Calm down there, Mrs Guildford! It's not your lucky day.

But perk up Mr Guildford, it's women on the receiving end of exploitation again. And that's so common, it's almost banal. Some men in this country must be rubbing their hands in glee that the recent backlash against women has allowed the expansion of the sex trade to the point where they're being delivered yet more fresh young meat from pastures new.

And if you're offended by the word meat, choose yourself a more attractive word, "totty", "bird", whatever you like. And if you don't think there's been a backlash against women then ...

a) see if you can find a men's magazine with a zero tissue count.

b) listen to the way women are discussed by certain Radio 1 DJs.

c) look at the rise in sexual crimes against women.

If anyone has doubts that women are really just objects for others to make money out of, the relationship between trafficking of women and the criminal fraternity is all you need to know about. Two kilos of cocaine or a couple of schoolgirls? What's your pleasure, mate?

"But how do these daft women get themselves into this mess?" the sensible colonel types with no conception of life outside the golf club may well be asking now. Well, criminals play on people's naivety and their desperate need to start a new sort of life in the West . Once they have paid the equivalent of a small fortune to get here, the women are told that that's not enough and they have to work it off in kind. The sex industry in this country is booming. Oh, isn't it lovely to know that all parts of the economy are flourishing. Because we all know, according to one once very popular economic theory, that profit will trickle down on to the rest of us – apart, of course, from the women in the sex industry. They are just being pissed on.

It has to be said that the Government is concerned about the recent rise in the number of women being trafficked and it is taking seriously a report that charts the increase in the numbers of trafficked women and girls over the past 10 years. New legislation is being considered, which will specifically focus on this unique crime.

But the report also highlights the fact that the police are largely unaware of the scale of the off-street sex industry. That's apart from the ones who turn a blind eye to the goings-on regularly happening on their patch, of course. I do wonder, however, just how the blue-rinse brigade will react to this influx of unwelcome ladies of the night from Eastern Europe, because let's face it, they've got pretty apoplectic about your common-or-garden asylum seeker. Still, maybe a 15-year- old Albanian girl occasionally keeps the old man happy on a Friday night after a particularly wearing meeting in the city.

I do apologise for sounding so cynical, but it's always the seemingly respectable face of prostitution use which keeps the whole thing going so successfully.

As ever, this whole shebang is about money, and the trafficking of humans is leading to increasingly violent turf wars for the control of the business. But gangsters in our minds can equal romance. There are, after all, enough films about them to suggest this, whereas women in these films are decorative silly things who, when they cease to be decorative, are no longer of use and are replaced by better models.

Perhaps you think this is a small problem, easy for a feminist to bang on about. In fact, three-quarters of "street" women in Soho are from Eastern Europe, some of them working under coercion. They are forced to work in this way because on arrival in the UK their documents are snatched, leaving them powerless – or should we say more powerless than they were already. It is extremely depressing to read in this report that these women may be asked to engage in activities which are refused by other prostitutes, such as unprotected sex and God only knows what else.

Still, at least there is going to be a national conference on this topic on 6July at the Barbican Centre, in London, and one hopes that we will tackle this problem head-on – instead of resorting to our normal British response of tutting loudly and doing absolutely bugger all.

Hillary's brothers, two furious presidents and a hazelnut deal in the land of the Golden Fleece

It is a land which has always attracted adventurers. It was to the western coast of Georgia, where the tree-clad mountains of the Caucasus plunge into the Black Sea, that Jason and the Argonauts sailed 3,000 years ago in their search for the Golden Fleece. But who would have expected their modern day counterparts to be Hugh and Tony Rodham, two middle-aged American businessmen distinguished solely by the fact they are the brothers of Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of President Bill Clinton and possibly the next senator for New York.

Jason was looking for the Golden Fleece and to get it he braved moving rocks which tried to crush his ship and an army of skeletal warriors.

The Rodham brothers' objective was, if anything, more bizarre. They wanted to become kingpins in the Georgian hazelnut industry. But, like the Argonauts, they found their quest for the small brown nut, which grows in profusion on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the Black Sea, involved unexpected perils.

Within days of getting off their plane in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, last August they found themselves accused of involvement with the Russian mafia, fostering a separatist movement and were on the receiving end of anguished pleas from the White House to get out of the hazelnut business.

Photographs taken of the Rodham brothers at the time, one paunchy, the other lean, show them beaming at the camera, but there is, perhaps, a touch of unease and bewilderment in their faces. It is as if they were beginning to realise that Georgia is a more complicated place than they imagined.

Independent since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 it is today corrupt, bankrupt and deeply divided. "Georgia is a banana republic in the full sense of the term," one local observer told me in Tbilisi. But the Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister known locally as "the grey fox", likes to boast that he is a close friend of international leaders like Mr Clinton. Not surprisingly he was appalled to discover that the President's brothers-in-law were not only in Georgia but about to do business with one of his bitterest rivals.

The Rodhams' destination in Georgia was Batumi, the capital of Ajaria, a lush sub-tropical paradise on the Black Sea protected by mountains on three sides. It rarely snows and palm trees grow by the shore.

The very name Ajaria sounds like one of those fantasy Italian dukedoms where Shakespeare liked to set his comedies. And the similarities do not end there. For the last 10 years the reigning, if democratically elected, duke of Ajaria has been Aslan Abashidze, a poet and painter, who is a direct descendant of the princely family which ruled Ajaria for hundreds of years before the Bolsheviks captured it in 1921.

A short, distinguished looking 61-year-old, he is, like most Ajarians, a Muslim but not a very fervent one. Batumi has only one mosque. More striking is Mr Abashidze's fondness for grand opera and last year he staged Verdi's Otello in a reconditioned theatre in Batumi.

"You can't do business without him in Ajaria," said a sympathetic Georgian. "But, unlike most other leaders in the region, he gives something back to the people in the shape of schools, hospitals and bridges." He is also at daggers drawn with President Shevardnadze and the government in Tbilisi.

Mr Abashidze denies that he has any thoughts of secession, but he controls the local police and almost everything else which happens in Batumi, Georgia's second city with a population of 300,000. A cold war rages between him and the central government. He accuses Mr Shevardnadze of blockading Ajaria, diverting ships from its deep port to a smaller one controlled by the government further north along the Black Sea coast.

In the early Nineties, Tbilisi even tried to send the Georgian army across the mountains into Ajaria. The soldiers turned back after Mr Abashidze, who is immensely popular locally, asked women and children tolie down in front of the oncoming tanks.

The arrival of Tony and Hugh Rodham in Batumi last year was good news for Mr Abashidze. They appeared to be offering a big investment – $118m (£80m) over six years to process the hazelnuts and export them to the West through a Georgian-American joint venture company called Argo Holdings (Argo was, of course, the ship of the Argonauts).

It was not necessarily a stupid plan. Most of the world's hazelnuts come from northern Turkey, which is directly to the south of Ajaria.

But how on earth had the Rodham brothers ever heard of Ajaria and its hazel forests? The reason turns out to be simple enough, say sources in Tbilisi. A few years ago Mr Abashidze's daughter Diana married an Italian-American called Marco Canistrale. He was encouraged to use his new family connections to go into business in Ajaria and it was he who, through friends in the US, first brought the potential of the Ajarian hazelnut industry to the attention of Hillary's brothers.

There was, of course, another reason for Abashidze to welcome the Rodhams with open arms: they were President Clinton's brothers-in-law. In Georgia, family links are the closest of all bonds. The very presence of the Rodhams in Batumi looked like something close to US recognition of Ajarian independence. Just in case anybody missed the point there were little American flags on all the tables at the inaugural meeting on 26 August to kick off the hazelnut project. To cement the family link, Mr Abashidze then flew to Italy with the brothers for the christening of Diana and Marco's three-week-old baby Ricardo. Tony Rodham was the godfather.

The reaction in the Georgian capital was furious. President Shevardnadze appeared on television to demand that the hazelnut contract be stopped "because it harms the foreign policy of the US and because the Georgian opposition is using the contract for political ends". The Georgian leader angrily contacted Washington to find out what was going on.

An article appeared in The Washington Post revealing the Rodhams' trip to Ajaria and, citing a Georgian lobbyist in the US capital, claiming that Mr Abashidze was closely linked to an alleged Russian gangster called Grigori Loutchansky.

The White House was soon running for cover. The last thing it wanted was one more scandal about any shady associates of the Clinton family.

Hillary Clinton, in themidst of a senate election campaign, said she knew about her brothers' business trip to Georgia, but not what they were doing there there. Finally Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser, became worried enough to call Tony Rodham by phone.

"He said he felt that because a business deal was being used to misconstrue our foreign policy, and because opposition figures were trying to take advantage of the business deal for their own political purposes, [the Rodham brothers] should disengage from the deal," an administration official was quoted as saying.

In fact the Rodhams never pulled out. By December they were back in Ajaria for a week. "They flew about in a helicopter to look at the country, saw their hazelnut plantation and met with ministers," said a local journalist. At the Argo Holdings' hazelnut processing plant on the outskirts of Batumi, where the nuts are shelled and sorted, a nervous local manager, his newly built office filled with US flags, last weekadmitted: "We will be in production by next September but I cannot tell you my name; it is a commercial secret." His reticence is understandable.

Mr Abashidze himself is much more open. He is still bemused by the continuing row over the hazelnut project, but he confirmed in an interview with The Independent that it is still going ahead. He says hisgovernment has $1m invested in the scheme. He is alternatively enraged and bemused by the criticism of Tony Rodham for becoming young Ricardo's godfather which, he said, gave the impression that his little grandson was a paid-up member of the mafia. "He was only 20 days old at the time," Mr Abashidze said with a laugh. "On the other hand if you have any enemies in Italy I am sure he could deal with them for you." What about his links to Mr Loutchansky, the alleged Russian mobster, described by the US press as his "economic adviser"? "I know Mr Loutchansky," said Mr Abashidze. "But a lot of people come to see me.

"Nobody invited him here. He is about as much my economic adviser as he is my space adviser or my military adviser." This partial denial is unlikely to reassure the White House. The truth is that any local boss in the former Soviet Union will meet a lot of businessmen and many of these will be linked to the Russian mafia.

Mr Abashidze probably did not realise that Mr Loutchansky's name was guaranteed to give the White House nightmares. President Clinton had already been criticised for consorting with Russian criminals after he was photographed shaking hands with Mr Loutchansky at a fundraiser in the US in 1993. Two years later Mr Loutchansky was unable to attend another fundraiser because the State Department refused to give him a visa to enter the country.

Mr Abashidze denies vehemently that he is himself "the leader of the east European mafia". But he refers to the toddler Ricardo, who races around the cavernous reception rooms in Abashidze's headquarters in a small electric car bleeping the horn, as "the Mafioso".

Tony and Hugh Rodham may still dream of becoming the hazelnut kings of the Caucasus, but they are unlikely to succeed against the combined opposition of the Georgian government and the White House.