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No Conflict in Clintons' Vacation, Spokesman Says

Politics: First family's 3rd rent-free stay at home of developer seeking federal OK of project is called innocent. Watchdog groups are critical.

August 15, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday defended President Clinton's decision to spend his summer vacation in the home of a wealthy Boston developer involved in a high-profile hotel project that is seeking a green light from a federal government agency.

The Clintons are scheduled to leave Sunday for a three-week vacation--the longest of his presidency--at a secluded 1820s farmhouse on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., owned by Richard Friedman, who also hosted the Clintons' summer vacation in 1994 and a weekend visit in 1995.

Friedman owns a development company that has been hired by a civic group to build a hotel on Boston's City Hall Plaza. The group, the Trust for City Hall Plaza, has for about six months been negotiating with the General Services Administration, the federal government's landlord, over the shape of the project, according to agency spokesman Hap Connors.

While the GSA does not have veto power over the proposed building, it is one of many organizations complaining that the redevelopment project for one of Boston's most public places has taken shape with practically no public involvement, Connors said. The agency, which owns the JFK Federal Building on the plaza, disagrees with the trust on the exact placement of the new hotel.

"As a major presence in that area, we do think we should have a voice at the table," Connors said.

Some watchdog groups have questioned the president's decision to vacation rent-free at Friedman's home, particularly given the dispute over the City Hall Plaza development. But both the White House and Friedman argued that the president's holiday plans are perfectly innocent.

"We all have dealings with the federal government in one way or another--if we drive on an interstate highway or if we pay taxes," Press Secretary Mike McCurry said. "So, just because someone has some issue pending with the federal government doesn't rule him out as someone who can grant an act of hospitality to the president of the United States."

Friedman, who has known the president since the 1980s and has stayed overnight at the White House in the Lincoln bedroom, said talking to the president about the hotel project could not be further from his mind.

"I'm honored to host the first family again and I hope they have a wonderful--and I think well deserved--vacation," Friedman said. "The last thing I would ever think of doing would be to impose upon our friendship by discussing any matters concerning my personal business affairs."

Some good-government groups, however, view the issue differently.

"The concern is that Clinton could easily run interference for him with the GSA," said Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Krumholz said her organization has been troubled generally by the Clintons' regular practice of staying for free in the homes of wealthy individuals when they take vacations.

"There is a huge potential for conflict of interest," she said. "In general, the hosts are not disinterested parties. They have their own industries or interests that they are seeking privileges for."

Although other presidents have accepted the hospitality of friends during their presidencies, most have had their own vacation homes, such as George Bush's house in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Ronald Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara.

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