In Elian Gonzalez Case, a Conflict of Interest?

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No wonder Havana wants the Elian Gonzalez case settled in Washington rather than in Miami's courts. TIME has learned that a political consultant who has been at the forefront of efforts to keep Elian in the U.S. and has acted as a spokesman for the boy's Miami relatives also served as a political consultant to the judge who on Monday awarded one those relatives temporary custody. Armando Gutierrez served as a political consultant in the 1998 election campaign of Judge Rodriguez, who said Monday that (unlike the U.S. government) she'd been convinced that Elian faces imminent danger if he were returned to Cuba now. Gutierrez denied any conflict of interest Tuesday, telling TIME, "I'm not party to this lawsuit, I'm just a community activist who's not deriving any benefit from this case." He did acknowledge serving as a paid consultant to the election campaign of the judge, who was later transferred from felony court to family court pending a campaign finance investigation.

Judge Rodriguez has ordered a full hearing on March 6, to which Elian's father would be invited to travel from Cuba. But Juan Gonzalez and the Cuban government have, until now, rejected the option of his traveling to Miami for a family court hearing, charging that Florida's courts are open to influence from the powerful anti-Castro exile lobby. Although it's still legally possible for Washington to stick by its decision to send the boy home by Friday — legal experts suggest the case falls outside of the Florida family court's jurisdiction — the option may have become politically unpalatable for Washington. Sending Elian home against the wishes of his Florida family would require the INS to issue a deportation order. That would force the Clinton administration into a showdown with Florida's anti-Castro exile community, with Republicans only too eager to collect the dividend. So with an election looming, it may be some time before Juan Gonzalez is reunited with his son.