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Last Updated: Monday, 11 August, 2003, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Tongan court jester faces trial
King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
King Taufa'ahau trusted his 'court jester' with the country's money
The case of a US magnet salesman and court jester of the Pacific island nation of Tonga, and a missing $24m (15m) is finally coming to trial.

If the 1 March 2004 court date sticks - and previous dates have slipped - Tonga's 100,000 subjects may finally get to hear what happened to the country's money, which disappeared in the years leading up to 2001.

At the heart of the case is Jesse Bogdonoff, an "investment adviser" who was dubbed "official court jester" by Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

It was on his advice that money held in the Tonga Trust Fund was invested in a US corporation called Millennium Asset Management.

And it was from there - the Tongan Government alleges - that most of the money evaporated, in a mixture of risky investments in life assurance for the terminally ill, and inflated commissions.

Delays in finding witnesses have been blamed for long delays in the case, but US District Judge Martin Jenkins has now given both sides until the end of September to finish their interviews.

Passport sales

The San Francisco court will be the final arbiter of what actually happened to the trust fund money.

But the story of how the money ended up in a current account at Bank of America in San Francisco is just as mysterious.

Tonga has few exports, and makes much of its income from remittances dispatched by Tongans living overseas.

But during the 1980s the government, under the control of the king and his family, decided to make extra money out of selling passports to foreigners.

Among the 5,000-odd takers - at about $20,000 a time - were former Philipppines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, after they had left Manila in 1986.

Deception denied

The money held in the trust fund set up as a result amounted to half the nation's annual income.

Three people and six companies are now included in the lawsuit to try to recover the money, whose disappearance cost two ministers their jobs.

Mr Bogdonoff, whose career includes a stint selling magnets to relieve back pain, has always denied any intent to deceive, claiming that he simply misjudged the quality of the investments.

He has sued several of his fellow defendants.

Country profile: Tonga
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06 Oct 01  |  Asia-Pacific
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