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web posted March 6, 1999

Miami relative says Elian's father wants him to stay

Elian Gonzalez's father in Cuba has been attempting to signal to the boy's Florida relatives that he really wants his son to remain in the United States, a cousin who has been caring for the child testified before a congressional committee on March 1.

Marisleysis Gonzalez told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the boy's father, Juan Gonzalez , calls frequently, sometimes three times a day, and seems to be trying to indicate that he does not want the boy returned to him in Cuba.

The 6-year-old boy has been the center of an international custody dispute since he was found clinging to an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day off the Florida coast. His mother and 10 others traveling with him drowned in an effort to flee Cuba. He is staying with his Miami relatives.

Marisleysis Gonzalez quoted the father as saying, "I appreciate everything you're doing for my son. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"

She said she believes the father's conversations are being monitored and taped by Fidel Castro's forces -- and that sometimes Gonzalez asks his son to join him on the phone in singing "revolutionary songs."

Congress is considering legislation by Sen. Connie Mack, R-Florida, that would confer citizenship on Elian.

Arguments over whether a federal court has jurisdiction to override a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service decision to reunite the boy with his father in Cuba will be heard on March 9, it was announced.

That INS decision was made in early January but action was postponed after the boy's extended family in Florida filed a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, demanding due process for the boy and a political asylum hearing.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Moore will consider a motion filed by the government to dismiss the family's lawsuit.

In court papers, U.S. immigration attorneys argue the court does not have jurisdiction to override the INS directive, because of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality act. Both sets of Elian's grandparents also live in Cuba.

If Judge Moore decides otherwise, the case would consider other aspects of the boy's lawsuit. The hearing is expected to last at least half a day.

The Senate committee also heard evidence from a daughter of Castro who urged Congress not to deport the boy and "bend to the wishes of a dictator."

Castro's daughter, Alina Fernandez, claims Elian's family in Cuba "is being used and manipulated by the Cuban government for political purposes and to generate anti-American sentiment"

Fernandez, who fled Cuba in 1993 and is one of her father's fiercest critics, told the panel: "You cannot allow this unilateral victory on behalf of a dictator."

"Parental rights, family rights, do not exist there," she said. Elian's family in Cuba "is being used and manipulated by the Cuban government for political purposes and to generate anti-American sentiment," she said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the committee chairman, said the dispute "is not just a custody matter, but a case where one of the options considered is returning this child to one of the last prison nations in the world."

But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's senior Democrat, said the committee was making a mistake trying to intervene in an immigration case that is currently before a federal court in Miami.

"A young boy belongs with his parent, not with distant relatives," said Leahy. "Because we all oppose Fidel Castro does not mean we should oppose this boy being with his father." Both sets of Elian's grandparents also live in Cuba.

"He is going to school and trying to lead a normal life," said Roger Bernstein, attorney for Elian's Miami family. "We want a resolution to this."

Last month, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota suggested sentiment is growing in both parties in the Senate for allowing the boy to return to his father in Cuba.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, had once pledged a quick vote on a bill conferring U.S. citizenship on the boy but backed off.

Ontario sues global tobacco firms in U.S. over health costs

The Ontario government has filed its lawsuit for cancer-related costs against tobacco companies in the United States in what Canadian cigarette makers are calling a publicity stunt.

In New York on March 1, lawyers for the province carried through on an 11-month-old promise to go after tobacco companies for as much as $59 billion (Cdn).

The suit alleges that tobacco companies conspired to make their product more addictive by adding excess nicotine, Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer said in a statement.

Witmer first announced the province's plans last April in the run-up to a spring election. She said then the province was seeking to recover the what it has spent treating cancer-related illness since the late 1970s.

The suit will make use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

But observers say the suit is already in jeopardy, after a similar lawsuit by the government of Guatemala was rejected. U.S. Justice Paul Friedman in Washington ruled that foreign governments should sue tobacco companies in their own jurisdictions.

Marie-Josée Lapointe of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council, which is named in the suit, said the group has not yet been served with legal notice but, if the suit proceeds, they will defend themselves "vigorously."

Lapointe said the tobacco manufacturers are confident the suit will not be allowed to proceed in light of the Guatemala case.

"I don't see why they are suing a Canadian company in the United States," she said. "We do reject the allegations of wrongdoing."

Lapointe said the Ontario and federal government receive a combined $1.5 billion a year in cigarette taxes.

"It is hypocritical of them," she said, labelling the suit a publicity stunt.

Given Friedman's ruling, it would have been logical for Ontario to withdraw the American suit and bring suit in Ontario, Douglas Lennox, a Toronto lawyer handling cases against tobacco companies, said in The Lawyers' Weekly.

In an interview, Lennox said the Ontario lawsuit is effectively "dead."

Former Democratic fund-raiser convicted

A federal jury on March 2 convicted former fund-raiser Maria Hsia of arranging more than $100,000 in illegal contributions to Democrats during the 1996 campaign in a case that examined her long-time ties to Vice President Al Gore. The jury deliberated less than two days before finding Hsia, who started raising money for Gore more than a decade ago, guilty of five felony counts. Each charge carries a five-year maximum prison term.

Hsia, an immigration consultant from Los Angeles, showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman read the verdict.

Defense attorney Nancy Luque, who has motions pending before the judge seeking a judgment of acquittal in the case, said: “The thing's still alive. It's not dead yet.”

Prosecutors alleged that Hsia tapped a Buddhist temple and some of her well-to-do business clients for money to reimburse straw donors who were listed as the contributors on federal election reports. Prosecutors said a total of $109,000 in reimbursed donations went to Clinton-Gore '96, the Democratic Party and the campaign of Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.

Among the evidence introduced at the trial was video footage of the vice president attending a now-infamous donor event at a Buddhist temple in California.

The judge ordered that the courtroom tape — likely attack fodder on the campaign trial — be kept out of the public domain until the trial's end.

Hsia was charged with five felony counts of causing false statements to be filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Testimony in the three-week trial revolved around the April 29, 1996, fund-raiser at the Buddhist temple. Prosecutors said Hsia helped arrange $65,000 in illegal reimbursements to donors, using temple funds.

When controversy erupted after the event about illegal reimbursements to some of the contributors, the vice president said he hadn't known he was attending a fund-raiser, that he thought it was community outreach.

After documents turned up referring to the event in advance as a fund-raiser, Gore modified his characterization, saying he had thought it was a finance-related event.

At the trial, former Democratic Party fund-raiser John Huang, the central figure in the campaign fund-raising scandal, testified that Hsia handed him an envelope containing $100,000 the day after Gore attended the temple event. Most of the donations in the envelope were reimbursed by the temple.

Hsia's lawyers pointed out there was no evidence that Hsia was aware of the reimbursements from the Gore fund-raiser, but prosecutors introduced canceled checks suggesting that on three instances from 1993 to 1996 Hsia used temple funds to reimburse her own political donations. Hsia did not testify at the trial, but her lawyers said the money was for public relations work Hsia had done for the temple.

Hsia's lawyers said she thought the temple was gathering checks from its followers, many of them wealthy and eligible to contribute.

Through Huang's testimony, prosecutors showed only $30,000 to $40,000 had been raised from the Gore temple event and that Hsia came up with the envelope containing an additional $100,000 less than 24 hours later.

“Hsia had to have known what the temple was doing,” prosecutor John McEnany said.

Prosecutors also introduced copies of the reimbursed checks that were found in Hsia's office.
Hsia's lawyers portrayed her as a community activist trying to involve Asian-Americans in the U.S. political process. Prosecutors depicted Hsia as a schemer trying to promote her immigration business through her political fund raising.

Huang testified that Hsia recommended that she be seated next to Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner at a Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Hay-Adams Hotel attended by President Clinton on Feb. 19, 1996.

Prosecutors introduced a photograph of Hsia standing next to Meissner at the event.

Huang said Hsia handed him $25,000 in checks that were reimbursed by the temple. Huang said he was unaware of the reimbursements. A Buddhist nun testified that Hsia had picked up some of the checks from the temple.

Two of Hsia's immigration clients testified that at Hsia's direction, they bankrolled thousands of dollars in reimbursed donations for a fund-raiser that Clinton attended at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

Hsia “wanted me to exchange some checks,” testified one witness, a businesswoman recently arrived from China. The businesswoman was a foreign national and ineligible to contribute money to a U.S. election.

Prosecutors presented evidence that the alleged reimbursement scheme extended to contributions for Kennedy's congressional campaign. Witnesses testified that Hsia got five blank checks from the Buddhist temple and reimbursed five donors, including herself, in connection with a temple fund-raiser that Kennedy attended.

South Carolina Republicans block King holiday

South Carolina legislators blocked a bill on March 2 establishing a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, leaving the state the only one in the nation refusing to honor the slain civil rights leader.

Republicans in the state House of Representatives effectively killed support for the bill by tacking on an amendment changing the proposed holiday to Civil Rights Day, and adding language defending the Confederate flag as a symbol of the state's heritage.

State Rep Joe Neal, a Democrat and vice chairman of the legislative black caucus, decried the two-day debate over the King holiday in the House chamber -- where a Confederate flag hangs over the speaker's dais -- as "racial politics at its worst."

"Clearly we don't have one (a King holiday) because of the issue of race," Neal said. "It's deplorable. It's despicable."

South Carolina legislators have been under fire this year to lower a Confederate flag flying over the statehouse dome. The Southern Cross, the flag most commonly associated with the confederacy, is widely seen as a symbol of racism and oppression of blacks in the South.

Defying an NAACP-led economic boycott of the state over the flag issue, House Republicans wrapped the Confederate flag issue around the holiday bill by including an amendment defending the flag as a symbol of the state's heritage.

"South Carolina displays the Confederate battle flag with honor as a symbol of our heritage. It is not flown in defiance of any government or as a statement regarding any civil rights, constitutional or racial issues," the amendment read in part.

"(The flag) perpetuates the memory of our ancestors and honors the heroism they exhibited in many battles during the horrific conflict known as the War Between the States," the amendment read. "The Confederate battle flag is not a racist banner per se."

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States in December 1860, and in April 1861 the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, once the busiest port for importing slaves from Africa.

The state's racial heritage was thrust into the national spotlight during last month's Republican presidential primary. Rivals Texas Gov. George Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain refused to take a stand on the flag, and Bush campaigned at Bob Jones University, which forbids interracial dating.

In debate over the King holiday on the House floor. Republicans sought to kill the bill by attaching dozens of amendments establishing new holidays, including a Confederate Memorial Day, deleting references to King, and moving the holiday from its traditional third Monday in January to a Saturday.

The King holiday bill, which passed the state Senate last year and is supported by first-term Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, ultimately was sent back to a House committee to keep it from being voted down. There is a slim chance it could be revived in committee before the session ends in June.

"Obviously, there's not enough support in this body to pass Martin Luther King Day today," said Jim Harrison, a Columbia Republican who supports the holiday.

State Rep. John Graham Altman III, who has led the charge against a King holiday by castigating the civil rights leader, said the bill likely would die in committee.

If the bill does reemerge from committee, it would likely delete references to King and instead establish a Civil Rights Day holiday "where we honor a wonderful movement and not a flawed man," Altman said.

Alberta unveils for-profit health bill

In a move that could change the face of health care in Canada, the Alberta government introduced a bill on March 2 to allow for-profit clinics to compete with public hospitals.

Bill 11, the Health Care Protection Act, would allow private, for-profit doctors to do a wide range of minor surgeries and have their patients stay overnight - all under one roof and all paid for by medicare.

But Premier Ralph Klein stressed the province has not created private hospitals.

"This is groundbreaking legislation but there are . . . many safeguards that will allow surgical clinics to operate but under very strict conditions.

"It shuts the door on two-tier health care without closing the door on change and choice."

Federal Health Minister Allan Rock said in Ottawa he has "some real concerns" about the plan but he'll take some time to consider whether it violates the Canada Health Act.

"As we look for answers we must be careful to distinguish the real solutions from the false ones," Rock told the House of Commons yesterday.

Klein's government has pulled similar legislation twice before due to public outrage.

The proposed legislation specifically bans private hospitals while defining hospitals as buildings that have emergency services as well as a wide range of diagnostic equipment.

The bill does not allow for-profit clinics to do major surgeries but allows them to do an unlimited number of minor ones. The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons would decide what is minor and what is major.

Alberta Liberal Leader Nancy MacBeth called the legislation "a Trojan horse bill" that will ultimately lead to profit-driven clinics and a two-tier health system in which the wealthy will receive better treatment than those less fortunate.

"This law sets up private hospitals in this province and is completely contrary to what the government has been spinning in their propaganda campaign," she said.

"It's nothing but a blank cheque (for private providers)," added Raj Pannu, acting leader of the New Democrats.

"This will enable those private, for-profit sharks to set up their businesses and this province will guarantee them business without regard to how much it costs or whether it reduces waiting lines."

Under the bill, regional health authorities would be allowed to enter into the private contracts but the health minister would have to OK them to make sure they are filling a void and are cost effective to taxpayers.

"If they can't make that case, the contract won't be let. It's that simple," said Klein.

The term "cost-effective" was not defined in the legislation.

Pinochet back in Chile

A beaming Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean leader, stepped into a bright Chilean morning on March 3, returning home after Britain freed him from 16 months of house arrest.

Friends, family members and military and government officials greeted the 84-year-old Pinochet at Santiago's airport as Chilean flags waved and German march music played.

Hundreds of supporters gathered near a hospital in Santiago, Chile, where the ailing general was to be transported for a medical examination upon arrival. Supporters had draped banners from trees across streets to welcome him that called Pinochet a hero and a liberator of Chile.

Britain released Pinochet the day before after Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled Pinochet was too ill to extradite to Spain to stand trial on charges related to his 17-year rule over Chile. A British medical report found Pinochet suffered brain damage related to two strokes and was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Two hours after Straw's announcement, Pinochet left the estate outside London where he had been held under house arrest since October 1998. He boarded a Chilean Air Force transport for the trip home.

Pinochet had been recuperating in a London hospital from a minor back operation when he was arrested on October 16, 1998, on a warrant from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who said many Spaniards were victims of murder and torture during his 1973 to 1990 regime.

Spain said it would respect Britain's decision to free him, but Garzon has vowed to have him arrested if he ever leaves Chile again.

For family members in Chile, Pinochet's freedom was a relief. Said Jacqueline Pinochet, the retired general's daughter, "It's clear that this was nothing but a political thing."

Pinochet had his backers in Britain as well, including former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who noted that Pinochet's government had backed Britain in its 1982 conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

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