President Bill Clinton and his wife started shipping furniture from the White House to the Clintons' newly purchased home in New York more than a year ago, despite questions at the time by the chief usher about whether they were entitled to remove the items.
The day before the items were shipped out, White House chief usher Gary J. Walters said he asked whether the Clintons should be taking the furnishings because he believed they were government property donated as part of a White House redecoration project in 1993, during Clinton's first year in office.
But Walters was told by the White House counsel's office that the items he asked about -- which included an iron and glass coffee table, a painted TV armoire, a custom wood gaming table, and a wicker center table with wood top -- were "personal gifts received by the Clintons prior to President Clinton's assuming office."
Personal property brought to the White House by an incoming president does not have to be disclosed on financial reports. As a result of the counsel's determination, the furnishings were sent on to the Clintons' new home in Chappaqua. They were not listed among the controversial gifts Clinton revealed, the day before he left office this year, that he and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), had taken with them.
However, government records show that the gifts that concerned Walters did not arrive at the White House until after the Clintons moved in. At least one of the items, a Ficks-Reed wicker table, was logged in at the White House on Feb. 8, 1993. Joy Ficks, the widow of the manufacturer, told The Washington Post last week it was meant for the White House, not the Clintons, and she thought it would stay there.
The Clintons' interior decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, had been soliciting gifts for the White House redecoration project even before the 1993 inauguration, according to some of those she approached. Walters said he understood she was telling donors that the furnishings were for the executive mansion rather than the Clintons personally.
"As far as we were concerned, they were government property," Walters said of all the gifts obtained for the $396,000 redecoration project.
This week, the Clintons returned the four items to the White House, along with other furnishings, after questions were raised about whether they actually belonged to the Clintons. Almost all the furnishings had been designated official White House property by the National Park Service in 1993.
Julia Payne, a spokeswoman for the former president, said the Clintons wanted to be "overcautious" in light of the concerns that had been raised. Despite the questions posed by Walters, Payne said the Clintons or Hockersmith acquired the four items in Little Rock before they came to Washington.
"I don't know physically where the items were," Payne said, but "they [the Clintons] were not required to put them on their financial disclosure form. He wasn't president yet."
Hockersmith did not return repeated calls this week seeking comment.
The Clintons came under strong criticism after disclosing that they were taking with them $190,000 in gifts received over the past eight years. GOP lawmakers and other critics chastised Hillary Clinton, in particular, for accepting a rash of presents just before she was sworn in as a senator and became covered by strict ethics rules that prohibit the receipt of any gift worth more than $50.
Bowing to such criticism, the Clintons decided on Feb. 2 to pay for $86,000 worth of gifts given to them in the year 2000. This week, they agreed to return another set of gifts that had been donated to the White House in earlier years, including six items they had not previously disclosed as having been taken. These included the coffee table, the armoire, the gaming table and the wicker table that Walters has asked about a year ago.
Yesterday, the National Park Service released an inventory of all the furnishings returned this week by the Clintons. It included $28,500 in furnishings identified by The Post earlier this week as having been legally designated as White House property by the Park Service.
The armoire, the coffee table and the wicker center table were trucked to New York on Jan. 4, 2000, just before the Clintons moved into the $1.7 million home in suburban New York, Walters said yesterday. The gaming table and most of the other furnishings the Clintons returned to White House custodians this week had been taken from the White House last month in several shipments starting Jan. 4, 2001, the day after Hillary Clinton was sworn in.
Walters said he accepted without a fuss the determination of the counsel's office, in a memo dated Jan. 3, 2000, that the gifts were personal Clinton property. In the memo, White House associate counsel Meredith Cabe said the reason the four items "arrived after the Clintons" was each item "was given a special finish" under Hockersmith's direction "to match the design decor selected by the Clintons for individual rooms in their personal space in the Residence." Cabe said she was relying on information from Hockersmith.
"I'm not a lawyer," Walters said. "I didn't feel I was in a position to argue with the counsel's office."
Payne said, "No item, nothing, was removed without the approval of the usher's and curator's office."
Walters blamed himself for not raising any questions when the rest of the furnishings were taken from the White House last month. He said a Hillary Clinton aide, Eric Hothem, had told him these too were "the Clintons' personal property."
"I should have asked for more specifics on these items," Walters said. "I shoulder the blame for not saying, 'Hey, wait a minute.' "
In interviews this week, Walters said that Hockersmith told the late Vincent Foster, then the White House deputy counsel, that the furnishings she was soliciting for the 1993 redecoration project were meant for the White House collection, not the Clintons personally.
Walters said that Foster directed him and the Park Service in a March 24, 1993, memo to begin accepting the gifts with formal acknowledgments, thereby making the furnishings government property. Walters said he sent thank-you letters of his own, but by law, the Park Service's acknowledgments are what count since only it has the legal authority to accept gifts for the White House.
Gifts meant for the first family are supposed to be routed through the White House gifts office, a separate unit.
Walters said it was long-standing policy to have the donors state "if possible in writing, that the gift/donation is for the Executive Residence or the Presidency, not the President."
Walters said Hockersmith was given a copy of that policy and it was her job, as the one who solicited the gifts, to obtain the letters. But no letters ever materialized.
Walters said he tried unsuccessfully to "close that loop" for years. "It finally came to the point of decision when the Clintons bought their house in New York. They were under the impression that these [four] items were theirs to take."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to