Among the gifts that former president Bill Clinton says he is keeping as personal presents he accepted last year are $28,000 worth of furnishings that documents and interviews indicate were given to the National Park Service in 1993 as part of the permanent White House collection.
The Park Service serves as a steward for the White House and, according to the White House curator's office, is the only unit with the legal authority to accept gifts for the White House. A gift meant for the current White House occupants, by contrast, is routed through the White House gifts office, a separate unit.
Two of the furniture makers whose donations Clinton took with him on leaving the White House last month say they gave them to the White House as part of a widely publicized, $396,000 redecoration of the executive mansion and not to Clinton personally.
"When we've been asked to donate, it was always hyphenated with the words, " 'White House,' " New York manufacturer Steve Mittman said of his family-owned business, which gave two sofas, an easy chair and an ottoman, worth $19,900 and listed by Clinton as part of the gifts he took with him. "To us, it was not a donation to a particular person."
A spokesman for the Clintons, Jim Kennedy, rejected the notion that the gifts in question had been made to the White House rather than to the Clintons. He said it was his understanding that the furnishings in question were on the White House gifts office list and that the Clintons were entitled to rely on that in deciding each year which gifts they were going to keep.
In the case of the furnishings, Kennedy said, the Clintons postponed a decision until 2000. He said "all of the items" listed on Bill Clinton's final financial disclosure report "were considered by the gifts office to be gifts to the Clintons that they could keep or leave behind."
When the redecoration project was completed in the fall of 1993, the White House distributed a four-page summary of the work, saying it had been "financed by private donations of money to the White House Historical Association, including a donation from surplus funds of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, as well as donations of goods and services to the National Park Service."
Attached was a National Park Service list of "contributors to the National Park Service" and what they had given. In addition to furniture from Mittman, the document listed "Mr. and Mrs. Lee Ficks, Cincinatti, OH., furniture; David Martinous, Little Rock, AR., rug; Mr. Brad Noe, High Point, NC., furniture; and Stuart Schiller, Hialeh, Tx., furnishings."
Clinton also listed these five in his Jan. 19 disclosure report, saying he was keeping a kitchen table and four chairs, worth $3,650, from Lee Ficks; a sofa, worth $2,843, from Noe; lamps, worth $1,170, from Schiller; and a needlepoint rug, worth $1,000, from Martinous.
All were merchants and manufacturers whose high-end gifts, according to those contacted, had been solicited by the interior decorator for the 1993 project, Kaki Hockersmith of Little Rock. Hockersmith, who used a Park Service pass at the time, did not return phone calls.
Like Mittman, Joy Ficks, whose late husband headed the Ficks Reed Co., said she thought the custom-finished rattan chairs and breakfast table installed in the private quarters would remain there as government property. She was puzzled when she learned the Clintons had taken the set with them.
"We gave it to the White House," she said. "I wondered what happened to it."
Noe, who worked at Henredon Furniture Industries at the time, and Schiller, who heads Cambridge Lamps Inc. of Hialeah, Fla., did not respond to phone calls. Martinous, who operates an Oriental rug company in Little Rock, said he wanted the Clintons to keep the handwoven needlepoint he gave.
Two former Internal Revenue Service commissioners, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, said that Clinton's taking the furnishings under such circumstances would appear to be an improper "conversion of government property" that could require the Clintons to pay taxes on them. They said they were not suggesting criminal wrongdoing by the president.
"It's the intent of the giver that counts," said Sheldon S. Cohen, who headed the IRS under president Lyndon B. Johnson. "If it was given to him [Clinton], it's his. But if it was given to the United States, then it is improper for it to end up in his hands unless he buys it."
Donald C. Alexander, who was IRS commissioner under Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, said: "If someone gave something of value to the White House as the White House and not to the president, that is a gift to the government of the United States . . . a charitable contribution." The Clintons, he said, "have no business taking it with them. That is conversion of government property and income to them."
In the report, which Clinton signed Jan. 19, his last full day in office, the departing president said he was keeping $190,027 in gifts. On Friday, the former president and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), announced they would pay for nearly $86,000 in gifts, covering those given to them in 2000.
Thank-you notes to the Fickses suggest the gifts were understood to be for the White House. In a June 28, 1993, note "on behalf of the President and Mrs. Clinton," White House usher Gary J. Walters said he wanted to express "my deep appreciation for the donation of a table and a breakfast set to the Executive Residence at the White House."
In an Aug. 10, 1993, letter signed "Hillary," the then-first lady expressed appreciation "for your generous contribution to the White House."
"That sounds like an acceptance of the United States," Cohen said. "That's what I would have understood if I were the recipient of that letter."
Asked whether any items the Clintons kept were taxable to them, the IRS declined to comment. The IRS reportedly launched an inquiry in 1989 into former first lady Nancy Reagan's borrowing of designer dresses, gowns and jewelry -- valued at more than $1 million -- to see whether her use of the items might be taxable as interest-free loans. The IRS has refused to discuss the case, citing privacy laws.
It was not clear how the Clinton furnishings might have been included on the White House gifts office list when the Park Service had them on its list. A former White House aide who asked not to be named said inclusion of the items may have been a clerical error by someone at the gifts office, but not one for which the Clintons should be faulted.
White House curator Betty Monkman and Capricia Marshall, a personal assistant to the first lady in 1993, said they were confident that the process of sorting out gifts to the president and gifts to the White House was reliable. But neither they nor Kennedy could account for the Park Ser- vice's 1993 contributors' list.
Whatever the answer, Kennedy protested that "from the perspective of the Clintons, all they know is that these were gifts to them. . . . Given that Hillary Clinton helped raise more than $25 million for the benefit of the White House and that all the proceeds from her new book, 'Invitation to the White House,' will also go to the White House, it is a little silly and small to be talking about these few furnishings."
Former White House curator Clement Conger, however, said it was "outrageous" for the Clintons to take expensive items that were designated for the White House unless they "did not fit into the permanent collection."
"I was shocked to read about it," Conger said of Clinton's Jan. 19 gift list. "I was dumbfounded that they would pick up all kinds of things. I can see ordinary things, but certainly not anything of value."
In his Jan. 19 disclosure statement, Clinton said that "[n]o reportable gifts were accepted in 2001." Hillary Clinton was sworn in as a senator on Jan. 3, bound by Senate rules prohibiting her and her spouse from accepting a gift worth more than $50.
Alexander said that what he viewed as the transfer of government property may have taken place, as a legal matter, whenever the property was removed from the White House, "when the moving vans took it away."
Asked what that date was, Kennedy said, "As far as we're concerned, the question is moot because there was no conversion."
Staff writers Jura Koncius and Patricia Dane Rogers and researchers Margot Williams, Madonna Lebling and Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.