WASHINGTON — President Clinton and his wife started shipping White House furniture to the Clintons' newly purchased home in New York more than a year ago, despite questions at the time by the White House chief usher about whether they were entitled to remove the items.
The day before the items were shipped out, chief usher Gary Walters said he questioned 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 table with wood top--were "personal gifts received by the Clintons prior to President Clinton 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 Clinton's new home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
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 these items, a Ficks-Reed wicker table, was logged in at the White House on Feb. 8, 1993. The widow of the manufacturer, Joy Ficks, said last week that it was meant for the White House, not the Clintons.
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. All the furnishings had been designated official White House property by the Park Service in 1993.
Julia Payne, a spokeswoman for the former president, said the Clintons wanted to be "over cautious" in light of the concerns that had been raised. Despite the questions posed by Walters, Payne said the Clintons or their interior decorator acquired the four items in Little Rock, Ark., before they came to Washington.
Kaki Hockersmith, the interior decorator, 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 last eight years. GOP lawmakers and others criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular for accepting many presents just before she joined the Senate and became covered by strict ethics rules that prohibit accepting gifts worth more than $50.
Bowing to such criticism, the Clintons decided Feb. 2 to pay for $86,000 worth of gifts given them in 2000. This week, they agreed to return another set of gifts, including the four items questioned by Walters, and $28,500 more in furnishings identified by the Washington Post this week as having been legally designated as White House property by the National Park Service.
Walters said he accepted the determination of the counsel's office that the gifts were personal Clinton property without a fuss. "I'm not a lawyer. I didn't feel I was in a position to argue with the counsel's office." He said he'd been troubled all along by the lack of donor letters.
Payne said, "No item, nothing, was removed without the approval of the usher's and curator's office."
Walters blamed himself for not raising questions when the rest of the furnishings were taken from the White House last month. He said an aide to Sen. Clinton had told him these too were "the Clintons' personal property."
"I should have asked for more specifics on these items," he said. "I shoulder the blame for not saying, 'Hey, wait a minute.' "