After President Clinton and fund-raiser extraordinaire Terry McAuliffe played a round of golf in upstate New York on Tuesday, the president made an unscheduled visit to St. Camillus Nursing Home to visit McAuliffe's ailing 79-year-old mother, Millie, who recently had hip replacement surgery.
Later in the week, McAuliffe returned the favor -- and then some. When former White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles at the last minute balked at guaranteeing a $1.35 million mortgage for the Clintons' new house in Chappaqua, N.Y., McAuliffe rode to the president's rescue.
In a move that enables the Clintons to buy the house -- and Hillary Rodham Clinton to have a base for her New York Senate run -- the 42-year-old real estate developer and dealmaker pledged to put up $1.35 million in cash to secure a mortgage for the Clintons. Otherwise, swamped by more than $5 million in legal debts, the Clintons might have had difficulty obtaining the loan for the five-bedroom, century-old house.
Ethics law experts said yesterday that there is no legal difficulty with the Clintons' accepting McAuliffe's help, but some questioned the propriety of the president's accepting such a benefit from a private citizen.
"It's just plain wrong. It's dangerous. It's inappropriate," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. "This is a financial favor worth over a million dollars to the president."
McAuliffe is not actually giving any money to the Clintons. Rather, he will deposit $1.35 million in cash -- the full amount of their mortgage -- with Bankers Trust; the only risk to McAuliffe's money is in the unlikely event that the Clintons default.
The Clintons will put up $350,000 and pay an adjustable-rate mortgage set at one point over the London Interbank Offered Rate, a bank lending rate that is now 5.52 percent. The loan is "interest-only," meaning the Clintons pay only interest on the loan but do not reduce the principal during the five-year term.
Some mortgage bankers said McAuliffe's intervention either allowed the Clintons to obtain what might appear to be an otherwise risky loan or to secure a lower interest rate because the mortgage is fully backed by collateral. "They would definitely be in a better position to get a better rate with that deal," said Crestar Mortgage Corp. senior vice president Patrick Casey, incoming president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of Metropolitan Washington.
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said the arrangement was "deemed to be the most sensible mortgage, given their situation."
Neither Bankers Trust nor the White House would provide details yesterday about what interest McAuliffe would earn. Financial experts said that it was likely to be well below what he could reap in the stock market or from his investments, but that there would be little inconvenience for McAuliffe if he keeps a significant amount of his wealth in cash.
A source close to McAuliffe described the transaction as "risk-free." McAuliffe's business has included such enterprises as developing real estate in Florida, selling title insurance, marketing credit cards to unions and running a bank.
"It's not a legal issue, it's a perception issue," said Charles R. Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity. "I am always uncomfortable when people who give money or raise money are personally involved with a public official financially. . . . It's worrisome for a sitting president to be this dependent on any one person financially."
The White House said it was going beyond legal requirements in revealing McAuliffe's role, noting that the Office of Government Ethics had advised it that McAuliffe's guarantee of the loan was not a "gift" that must be reported on the Clintons' annual financial disclosure form. The ethics office reasoned that, because the guarantee is only a promise for the future, it does not have current cash benefit that has to be included on the forms, a government official said.
"Even though we have no obligation to do so, we decided to make public the details about the mortgage in an effort to be as transparent as we can," Kennedy said.
"We believe the public does have a right to know about this and people are free to make their own judgments about it," Kennedy added. "Terry McAuliffe is a close friend of the president and he's happy to be of some help here, but since this is Washington, it's not surprising that some people can find a way to be critical."
However, some ethics experts said that other executive and legislative branch officials might be prohibited from accepting such help. Although federal employees are prohibited from taking most gifts, the rules make an exception for the president and vice president -- a difference originally intended to allow them to accept gifts from foreign dignitaries but that has since been invoked in permitting Clinton, for example, to accept contributions to his legal defense fund.
Even if a mortgage guarantee is not considered a gift for the purposes of the disclosure form, a government official said, it could be deemed a gift -- and prohibited to other government employees -- under the rules restricting acceptance of such benefits.
"It's hard to imagine how it isn't a gift," said one private lawyer who specializes in government ethics. "It's not that he wrote him a letter commending his character. He's put $1.3 million in cash out and doesn't have the use of that for the period of the balloon clause. . . . There's no way of seeing it as something not of value to the Clintons."
The Clintons are not the first presidential family to have friends come to their aid in buying a house. In 1986, 18 friends contributed $2.5 million to buy Ronald and Nancy Reagan a retirement home in Bel Air when a house Nancy Reagan liked went on the market. The Reagans eventually bought the property.
This is far from the first time McAuliffe has come to the aid of the Clintons. He headed fund-raising for the president's 1996 reelection campaign, devising the strategy that included wooing big donors with such benefits as overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom. Now, McAuliffe has taken on an array of tasks for the first family: spearheading efforts to help the Clintons dig themselves out of their legal debt, overseeing fund-raising for Clinton's presidential library and helping raise money for Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Indeed, McAuliffe is so instrumental to Clinton's financial future that the president has resisted efforts to lure McAuliffe to return to the Democratic National Committee, where McAuliffe was finance chairman during Clinton's first term.
McAuliffe is one of the small circle of friends who are the recipients of late-night phone calls from Clinton. Last February, as the Senate debated the articles of impeachment against the president, Clinton invited McAuliffe to the White House to celebrate McAuliffe's 42nd birthday with Dom Perignon and an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Known universally around Washington as "the Macker," McAuliffe first made his mark in national fund-raising when he worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee under California Rep. Tony Coelho. By 1988, McAuliffe was the chief fund-raiser for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's presidential campaign. In 1992, when Clinton was making his first run for the presidency, McAuliffe was the chief fund-raiser for one of his Democratic rivals, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.
Since then, things have changed. "I can tell you this," McAuliffe said Thursday night at a Syracuse fund-raiser that one of his kindergarten friends was hosting for Hillary Clinton. "I have no closer friends than the president and first lady."
Staff writers Jennifer Frey in Skaneateles, N.Y., and Susan B. Glasser and researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.