Some home thoughts from Fredonia

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The Independent Online
In July 1992 an eccentric naturalised American millionaire with a penchant for self-promotion was plucked from the world of business and became the accidental Prime Minister of rump Yugoslavia.

Milan Panic was chosen by the Serbian nationalist lite in Belgrade in the hope that the well-connected California businessman might end Serbia's international pariah status.

During his seven months in office Mr Panic was anything but the puppet the nationalists had hoped for. He vowed to end the war in Bosnia and to transplant US-style democracy in his homeland. He then took on his erstwhile supporter, Slobodan Milosevic, in an ill-fated bid to become president of Serbia.

Hounded and humiliated by the nationalist forces he could not defeat, Mr Panic bowed out of political life almost exactly two years ago. Despite promises to continue to press for democratic change in Serbia, he returned to California to be with his sick wife and to run the pharmaceutical empire he founded in 1960.

His return has been anything but quiet. While Mr Panic may have disappeared from the international political stage, he is still making headlines in California. For two years he has found himself embroiled in sexual-harassment lawsuits.

In the latest - filed earlier this month - a former employee of ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc alleged that Mr Panic demanded sex from her during a business trip and fathered her child before forcing her from her job last October.

Mr Panic emphatically denies the charges and ICN lawyers insist that the suit was filed "in apparent retaliation" to a suit brought by ICN, which alleges that the employee fraudulently used a company credit card to ring up more than $20,000 (£12,700) in bills before resigning in October.

This is the second sexual-harassment suit Mr Panic has had to face since returning to his adopted home. Last July another former ICN employee alleged that Mr Panic repeatedly propositioned her in the firm's Costa Mesa office and ultimately sacked her because of her rejection of his advances. Mr Panic also denied those allegations and the case was settled out of court.

Controversy is no stranger to the Mr Panic, 65. In 1987 his company was accused by the US government of having "skewed" scientific tests to assist the sale of a drug which allegedly slowed the onset of Aids. He has also had problems with taxes and business loans.

Nevertheless, Mr Panic is widely considered an astute businessman. His personal history reads like a rags-to-riches fairy tale. His rise from a penniless Yugoslav cyclist hero (he defected in 1956, supposedly while on the way to a race in the Netherlands) to the head of his own pharmaceutical company in California is the stuff of which television films are made.

The controversies that have surrounded Mr Panic and his brief political career have prompted some pundits to compare him to Rufus T Firefly - the outrageous political pretender to the Duchy of Fredonia in the masterpiece of Marx Brothers mayhem, Duck Soup. Mr Panic, however, did not enjoy Mr Firefly's political success.