Others paying costs of battle over Elian

Private benefactors, governments foot bill

April 29, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As the Elian Gonzalez saga wended its way through Miami, Washington and Maryland over the past five months, it left in its wake a mountain of bills: for legal costs, plane fares, lodging and police protection.

Yet, even now, as the family feud waits out its next chapter at a luxurious homestead on Maryland's Eastern Shore, money does not appear a concern for either of the warring sides. They're not paying the tab.

Instead, costs incurred during the long-running drama over the fate of the 6-year-old rescued boy -- which are likely to run well into the millions when all the bills are totaled -- are being underwritten by a vast array of benefactors stretching from Cuba to households around the United States.

U.S. taxpayers will pick up a substantial chunk, of course.

So far, the Justice Department's protracted fight to reunite the boy with his father has cost $578,000 in law enforcement, training, travel, overtime, security and litigation costs, officials said this week. That figure includes the tab for last Saturday's pre-dawn raid on the Miami bungalow where young Elian had been staying with relatives.

In Miami, the tab is even higher. Law enforcement officials there estimate the cost of controlling demonstrations around the relatives' home has reached $1 million.

Marylanders are kicking in a substantial share.

Montgomery County officials estimate they spent $125,000 to $150,000 during the two weeks that Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, stayed at the Bethesda home of the Cuban Interests Section chief. The cost covered police pay, including overtime, the installation of barricades at protest areas, portable toilets and trash pickup, county police spokesman Derek Baliles said.

Prince George's County has not tallied its cost for police protection around Andrews Air Force Base, where Elian and his family stayed for four days after federal officials seized the boy from his Miami relatives' home.

Donating began early

For the two family factions, both of modest means, the long-running custody fight would have been too expensive to pursue on their own. But almost immediately after Elian was rescued on Thanksgiving Day clinging to an inner tube floating near the Florida shore, volunteers showed up to support one side or the other, checkbooks in hand.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which was contacted by a church group in Cuba seeking help for the boy, set up a fund for legal expenses for Elian's father. So far, the fund has collected more than $50,000 from people all over the United States to help pay attorney Gregory B. Craig, a member of a prestigious Washington law firm. The group hopes to raise $100,000.

"Our only effort in this was to ensure that father and son would get back together," said the Rev. Erik Alsgaard, a spokesman for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

"We advocate strongly for the strengthening of families around the world," he added. "We have not taken any position ... on whether or not Juan Miguel and Elian should live here or in Cuba."

While Elian and his family are staying at the pastoral Wye River estate in Queenstown, their bills will be split three ways, Craig said this week. The Cuban government is paying for their food. The U.S. government is paying for round-the-clock security by the U.S. Marshals Service. Use of the house is being donated by its owner, Nina Houghton, chairwoman of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational organization.

Craig did not provide specific dollar amounts. Normally, people pay $100 to $200 a night to stay at the estate during conferences. The family expects to stay at least until a federal appeals court hearing May 11 in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Craig's law office in Washington has been flooded with donations of clothing, food, toys and books, a secretary at the firm said.

The Cuban government is believed to be paying for the transportation of Cuban adults and children who have been sent to help Elian readjust to his former life, but the cost has not been revealed. Elian's former kindergarten teacher, Angueda Cecilia Fleitas Miranda; his 10-year-old cousin, Yasmany Betancourt; four schoolmates and their mothers arrived from Cuba this week with a pediatrician. The visitors are expected to stay two weeks.

On the other side of the divide, in Miami, a 13-member legal team is working pro-bono for Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and his family, who are fighting to keep Elian in the United States and away from Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba. Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Miami relatives, said the family has assembled experts in immigration, state courts and appeals law, and now plans to add constitutional experts.

A legal defense fund set up at a Miami bank has collected more than $200,000, mostly through fund-raising drives on several radio stations. Most of the donations were made in small amounts, $5, $10 and $15 checks, Gutierrez said.

Expense-paid trips

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