A government investigation, prompted by Bush administration charges that aides to President Bill Clinton vandalized the White House as they left, found at least $19,000 in damage but concluded it may have been typical of recent outgoing administrations.
The 217-page report was released yesterday by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, capping a dispute that began in the first few days of the Bush administration when officials found evidence of pranks and vandalism.
The GAO based its damage estimate of at least $19,000 on the funds needed to repair or replace 62 computer keyboards, 26 cellular phones, 15 television remote controls, nine historic doorknobs, two chairs with broken arms and one presidential seal.
"Damage, theft, vandalism, and pranks occurred in the White House complex during the 2001 presidential transition," concluded the report, which had been commissioned by Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.). "Incidents such as the removal of keys from computer keyboards; the theft of various items; the leaving of certain voice mail messages, signs and written messages; and the placing of glue on desk drawers clearly were intentional acts."
The report gave both sides some vindication. Bush aides said it validated their charges, and former Clinton aides said it proved the damage was minor and ordinary.
The report said "some of the same types of observations that were made concerning the condition of the White House complex during the 2001 transition were also made during the 1993 transition," when Clinton was taking office. The report said that the GAO was "unable to conclude whether the 2001 transition was worse than previous ones" but that career government employees recalled similar conditions in 1989, when President Bush's father was inaugurated.
Investigators were unable to corroborate some charges by the new Bush administration, because in some cases it was impossible to determine whether the damage was intentional and in other cases it was uncertain who was responsible.
The bulk of the report, 130 pages, is an extraordinary exchange between the White House and the GAO: 77 pages of responses from the Bush White House rebutting the GAO's findings and 53 pages in which the GAO responds to the White House complaints. Though Bush officials have said repeatedly they had no interest in furthering the controversy, they responded to the GAO report paragraph by paragraph.
"It appears that the GAO has undertaken a concerted effort in its report to downplay the damage found in the White House complex," said the White House response, accompanied by a letter from White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. "The GAO omits from its report a reference to each reported instance of vandalism, damage, or a prank. The GAO underreports the number of observations for nearly every category of damage."
The Bush rebuttal argued that the GAO "fails to report the content of the graffiti and signs that were found."
"And the GAO is unwilling to conclude that the vandalism, damage, and pranks were intentional, even where the circumstances plainly indicate that they were."
Both the GAO and the White House devoted extensive resources to the investigation. The GAO interviewed 72 former Clinton administration officials and sent letters to 518 White House staffers who worked in the West Wing during the first three weeks of the current Bush administration. The White House counsel's office arranged for interviews with 78 of them and an associate White House counsel was present during each, the report said.
The bitter dispute began between Clinton officials and aides to Bush, who complained upon arriving in the White House that their predecessors had trashed the quarters and made it harder for the Republicans to get to work. The accusations led to angry exchanges between the two camps in the first weeks of the new administration, with aides to Clinton admitting to popping "W" keys off some computer keyboards but contending that the other charges were wildly exaggerated. The White House announced it was compiling a list of the damage, which became the basis for the GAO investigation.
The report said 29 White House staff members "observed about two dozen prank signs, printed materials, stickers, or written messages that were affixed to walls or desks; placed in copiers, desks and cabinets; or placed on the floor." Six White House staffers "said that they had observed writing on the walls (words) in a total of two rooms," the GAO said.
Investigators also interviewed employees of the General Services Administration about what they had seen as they prepared the office space. "It was not possible to determine whether, in all cases, the reported incidents had occurred, when they occurred, why they occurred, and who may have been responsible for them," the report said.
Anne Womack, a White House spokeswoman, said: "While the GAO confirmed that there was damage done to the White House, we have considered this matter closed for over a year and our focus is on moving forward."
But Clinton administration officials contended that Bush officials had wasted government money by provoking a report that turned up scant evidence of vandalism. They estimate the report's cost at $200,000. Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Clinton administration and now is press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, said the White House had embarked on "a failed pursuit to embarrass Clinton."
The list of pranks provided by the White House to the GAO, made public in the report for the first time, contained many colorful examples. White House officials said in a report to the GAO that a sign "comparing President Bush to a chimpanzee" was found "in a number of printers." The White House said two people observed a sign reading "VP's cardiac unit."