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Oh Brother

The return of the Rodhams.

Edgar Allen Gregory and his wife, Vonna Jo, were distressed. It was December 1999, and the couple, owners of the Tennessee-based carnival company United Shows of America, had applied for a presidential pardon nearly a year and a half earlier in the hopes that President Clinton would wipe out their 1982 bank fraud convictions. But the Gregorys couldn't get the president's attention. So they went to someone who could--First Lady Hillary Clinton's kid brother, Tony Rodham. They had been on friendly terms since meeting at a Democratic fund-raiser in 1995; Tony even helped secure a contract for the Gregorys to set up a carnival (planned by Hillary) on the White House lawn in 1998, an elaborate event that included a Ferris wheel and an arcade game complete with mock machine guns and crossbows. Now the couple needed a far more serious favor, and, when they ran into Tony at a party, they weren't shy. "You know, I was sure hoping we'd get a pardon," Edgar Allen Gregory later recalled telling Tony. "If there is any way you can help us, I'd appreciate it.'"

Just three months later, Clinton pardoned the corrupt carneys--overriding the recommendation of the Justice Department, a move rarely seen in the White House. When reporters questioned Tony about this unusual act of presidential clemency, he admitted that he may have put in a word for the Gregorys. But any accusations of impropriety, he insisted, were "absurd."

The carnival flap might have been lost to history were it not for the fact that, even after their pardon, the Gregorys' fortunes failed to improve. In 2002, United Shows of America United Shows of America went bankrupt, and last year, the liquidator of the Gregorys' estate sued Tony for repayment of $107,000 in loans--granted, coincidentally or not, around the time of the pardons. Tony claims the Gregorys paid him for his consulting services. The case is set to go to trial in Nashville on August 16.

With George W. Bush's controversial pardon of Scooter Libby kicking up memories of the Clinton administration's own dubious pardons, Tony's Carneygate trial could hardly come at a worse time for Hillary Clinton.

But perhaps the most curious aspect of the Brothers Rodham is not their penchant for bad behavior but Hillary's track record of turning a blind eye to it. Much as Bill endlessly indulged his ne'er-do-well brother, Roger, Hillary has consistently defended her intractable younger siblings, forgiving their misdeeds and allowing them endless second chances. Her protective instinct has hardly reformed the Brothers Rodham; if anything, it has given them more chances to act out and raises questions about how Hillary will handle the inevitable blunders that the brothers will make over the course of her presidential campaign.

As the oldest of the three Rodham siblings, Hillary has always kept an eye out for her little brothers. According to Carl Bernstein's recent Hillary biography, A Woman in Charge, as children Hugh and Tony were frequently "the beneficiaries of their sister's protection" and depended on her "when they got into scrapes that required some artful intervention." (Hillary, though, was hardly naive about her siblings' mischievousness. When she was seventeen, Bernstein writes, she read The Catcher in the Rye, but did not like it because Holden Caulfield reminded her of Hugh.) Still, the bond between the Rodham children continued into adulthood. When Hillary decamped for Arkansas with Bill Clinton, the brothers followed, going to school and accompanying Bill as he campaigned for state attorney general. They even tagged along with the newlyweds on their Mexican honeymoon.

When Clinton reached the White House, though, Hugh, who worked as a lawyer, and Tony, who had stints as a P.I. and a consultant, proved to be far less convivial companions for the first couple. Troubles began immediately, when the brothers got in a minor fracas for attempting to secure corporate sponsorship for lavish inauguration parties. The press soon pointed out that this scheme amounted to taking exorbitant gifts from lobbyists, and the plans were scrapped. But, not long after that, Hugh attempted to launch his own political career, giving the Clintons a year-long headache.

In 1994, Hugh, then an assistant public defender in the Dade County district attorney's office, decided to run for the U.S. Senate. The campaign was quixotic at best. Hugh had never shown any interest in public office before--indeed, he had never even voted until the 1992 presidential elections. The awkward spectacle of Hugh giving rambling interviews to reporters caused just about everyone in the White House--including Hillary--to cringe. "He's a great guy to sit in a bar with and talk about the Bears; he can drive a golf ball three hundred yards," says Michael Copperthite, who managed Hugh's campaign until leaving midway through the election. "But should he have been senator of the fourth-largest state in the country? No." Copperthite recalls a frenzied campaign with little to say and, frequently, no candidate around to press the flesh. "Hugh'd sleep until noon, one o'clock," Copperthite says. Copperthite left the campaign--Hugh's camp contends that he was "reassigned" due to discrepancies in his resume--and was replaced by none other than Tony Rodham. The brothers eventually prevailed on the Clintons to make a campaign stop--Hillary spoke on behalf of her brother at several events--but the Republican incumbent still crushed Hugh by a 41-point margin.

That was only the brothers' first act. After the Senate defeat, Hugh returned to his legal career, while Tony returned to his job as a regional coordinator at the DNC in Los Angeles, a post he soon abandoned. By 1997, he was making headlines again--this time for dabbling in foreign affairs. Confronted by a reporter, Tony admitted that associates of Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy had offered him a six-figure "payoff" to set up a meeting for Wasmosy and President Clinton. Tony balked at the implication that he had (or would) take the money, insisting that he only wanted to be helpful. A year later, Tony sent State Department officials into a frenzy when he visited Cambodia to mingle with the country's dictatorial Prime Minister Hun Sen. Although Tony claimed he had traveled to the Asian nation as a private citizen, the Cambodian government touted the visit as a signal of President Clinton's approval during a tumultuous election season. (In fact, Sen had provoked nothing but disapproval from the United States for his abysmal human rights record.) "You can imagine how this plays," a State Department official told The New York Times at the time of the trip. "President's brother-in-law comes to town on the eve of an election to offer praise for the thuggish government." Former aides say Hillary was privately mortified, though she publicly kept mum.

But it wasn't until September 1999 that Tony cooked up his most bizarre international business venture. Once again teaming up with Hugh, Tony hatched a plan to invest $118 million to grow and export hazelnuts from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Also involved in the business was Aslan Abashidze, suspected Mafioso and strongman rival of then-Georgian President (and Clinton ally) Eduard Shevardnadze. "It was like the Hugh and Tony show," a former aide says. "They had no idea what they were doing." National Security Advisor Sandy Berger pleaded with the brothers to drop the scheme after Abashidze trumpeted their involvement as a sign of "political support rendered to him by U.S. President Bill Clinton." But it was only after other White House officials leaned on them that Hugh and Tony agreed to quit the venture. And, a few months later, Tony took up the project again, prompting Berger, at Clinton's behest, to call in an apologetic disavowal of the youngest Rodham's activities to the government of Georgia. Hillary, again, maintained her customary silence.

But, in February 2001, shortly after she had started serving her first term as a U.S. senator, Clinton finally broke it. The press had recently learned that Hugh had collected $400,000 from Carlos Vignali and Almon Braswell after helping them to secure a presidential pardon and commutation. Hillary promised that the money would be returned and told reporters she was "very disappointed." But, when asked to explain Hugh's comings and goings at the White House, she noted wearily, "He's my brother."

It's exactly that attitude that propels Hillary to put Tony and Hugh in undeserved positions of influence. Both Rodham brothers declined to comment for this story, as did Senator Clinton's presidential campaign. But the most telling detail may be the role that Hillary has given Tony this spring. As his legal problems have unfolded, Tony has been helping his sister rake in campaign dollars, tallying up $175,000 in contributions at one recent Pennsylvania fund-raiser. There was no Ferris wheel at that affair, though it did feature a jazz quartet and a strawberry and pear martini bar.