Are Hillary's Brothers Driving Off Course?

  • They're known as "The Boys." So close have Tony and Hugh Rodham been to their sister Hillary Rodham Clinton that they tagged along on the Clintons' 1975 honeymoon. Always overshadowed by their high-wattage sibling, they began a new chapter in their lives when Bill and Hillary moved to the White House. Was it a blessing or a curse, this kinship to the Leader of the Free World?

    "It can go both ways," said Tony Rodham, who divides his time between Florida and Washington. "There's some wonderful things that have happened to me because of my relationship with Hillary and Bill, and there's been some really terrible things that have happened to me."

    Usually it is the President's side of the family that attracts unwanted publicity--Roger Clinton, Neil Bush and Billy Carter come to mind. But in the two-for-one Clinton presidency, the First Lady's brothers have joined in the tradition. Some of their misadventures are known. Now TIME has uncovered new examples of the brothers' asking for--and receiving--White House meetings with top Administration officials on behalf of their business associates, including a scheduled drop-by visit from the President himself. So far, the Rodhams don't seem to have made much money from their White House connections, but their sister's expected run for the U.S. Senate means their business dealings could provide more fodder for the Clintons' many political foes.

    By all accounts, Hillary's two brothers are colorful, likable men. At 45, Tony has a job history that includes stints as an insurance salesman, a prison guard, a sort of cable-service repo man (during which he drew gunfire at Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project) and a private investigator. Five years ago, he married Nicole Boxer, daughter of California Senator Barbara Boxer, in an elegant Rose Garden ceremony. His big brother Hugh, 49, a bearlike man who once played football for Penn State, served as a Peace Corps volunteer and spent more than a decade as an assistant public defender, including several years defending clients in Miami's pioneering drug court (started by local prosecutor Janet Reno, whom Hugh commended to his brother-in-law for Attorney General).

    The brothers for several years shared a bachelor pad in Coral Gables, Fla., but their first major business venture together was a $118 million plan to grow and export hazelnuts from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. This seemed attractive in light of a booming Western demand for hazelnut-flavored confections. Along with Stephen Graham, Tony's sometime partner and an occasional advanceman for Mrs. Clinton, the brothers flew to Georgia in August to look over the operation.

    The first sign of trouble appeared when Georgian officials got upset that the group was going straight to Batumi, a stronghold in the western region of the country ruled by political potentate Aslan Abashidze, a powerful rival to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, a U.S. ally. White House officials urged the group to make a stop in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi first and meet with Shevardnadze, which they did. The meeting "was absolutely great," said Tony. "He promised to help us." Then the group spent eight days in Batumi meeting with Abashidze, as well as with hazelnut farmers, the Orthodox bishop and others who feted them for the huge investment they were expected to bring.

    The Rodhams had tumbled into the byzantine world of post-Soviet politics. According to Tony, Abashidze never exploited his newfound connection to the White House. But Shevardnadze sympathizers say Abashidze, who enjoys support from Georgia's much feared neighbor Russia, seized on the visit of President Clinton's in-laws to suggest that he had a seal of approval from the U.S. government in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. In fact, just after the Rodhams left, according to Georgian news reports, Abashidze trumpeted "the possibility of political support rendered to him by U.S. President Bill Clinton" and said the U.S. branch of the hazelnut investment firm would be located "next to the White House." The Rodhams' trip culminated with Tony's flying to Rome to become godfather to Abashidze's new grandson.

    National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who feared the Rodhams were being manipulated by Shevardnadze's foe, told the brothers in September that they should dump the hazelnut deal. The Rodhams resisted. The White House tried again, and according to officials, this time the brothers backed down. But in a recent interview, Tony would say only that he's "restructuring" the venture and complains that he and Hugh are victims of a pro-Shevardnadze disinformation campaign. Tony wouldn't say whether he had money invested in the venture or was acting on behalf of others; Hugh said he has no money at stake and was simply the company's lawyer.

    The hazelnut imbroglio wasn't Tony's first dip into murky foreign political waters. In 1997, sources tell TIME, Tony--working as a consultant for a company trying to do business in Russia--arranged a White House meeting for Moscow's powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Rodham was working for Gene Prescott, who was involved in IBN, a start-up that wanted to bring "smart" credit-debit cards to Russia and was hoping for the support of Luzhkov. Prescott knew Luzhkov wanted to meet with Clinton and asked Tony if he could set it up, according to Tony. Former White House officials tell Time that this was touchy business; Luzhkov, a potential successor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, has been accused of having links to Russian mobsters. Recently he had been involved in a dispute with an American businessman who was subsequently found murdered in Moscow. That it was Tony who was requesting the meeting with Luzhkov made things very uncomfortable for Berger, according to someone familiar with the episode. But on a Saturday in April 1997, when few people would notice, Berger agreed nonetheless to meet with Luzhkov, and Clinton arranged to come by.

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