- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

The chairman of a key congressional panel yesterday told a federal agency it would be "extremely unwise" to transfer money from other projects to pay the $650,000 annual lease on former President Bill Clinton's swank Manhattan office space.

Rep. Ernest Istook, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees budgets for ex-presidents, said Mr. Clinton should have sought more money from his panel before quietly asking the General Services Administration (GSA) to come up with the cash.

"They're using a backdoor approach, saying 'GSA, you make up the difference, you transfer the money from somewhere else.' They're asking for people to go to extremes to pay for a presidential penthouse," the Oklahoma Republican said.

Meanwhile, several Republican senators yesterday voiced their concern over the growing scandal over White House vandalism, now under investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

"My position is the damage was done and it should be repaired at the expense of the people who caused it; [if] something was taken, it should be given back," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican.

Asked if he supported an investigation into the vandalism, Mr. Bond said: "I don't know. I would just say figure out the bill and send the bill to the Democratic National Committee."

But Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said he wants at least an initial inquiry and maybe more.

"There needs to be at least someone to look into it." If substantial damage is found, a more thorough investigation might be warranted, he said.

"I've heard the damage is more extensive" than has been reported, Mr. Santorum said. Estimates of the damage have ranged in media reports from $90,000 to $200,000. Bush officials have downplayed the vandalism and have never compiled a list of what occurred when bitter Clinton staffers left the White House.

Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, on Wednesday asked the GAO to begin an "immediate investigation" into the cost of the vandalism at the White House and the Old Executive Office Building, which included cut telephone lines, overturned desks, trashed offices and the removal of labels on thousands of phones, rendering them inoperable.

GAO protocol calls for the agency to conduct a preliminary investigation and then accept or reject any request from a member of Congress within 10 business days, which means Mr. Barr's query will be answered by Feb. 12.

If accepted, the agency will then estimate how long it will take to fulfill the request which protocol says could be weeks or months.

Mr. Istook who Wednesday said his panel would take "no special action" on the White House vandalism sent his letter yesterday to Thurman M. Davis, acting administrator of the GSA about Mr. Clinton's office space.

In it, he listed 11 questions he wants answered about the unusual request by the former president for $650,000 for office space.

"I am concerned by indications that GSA is moving to approve a lease agreement at a rate that would cause these accounts to operate at a deficit, and by indications that GSA may seek to transfer or reprogram funds from other accounts without [his committee's] approval," he wrote.

Mr. Clinton requested and received through normal channels $57,000 to cover the first three months of rental for office space, which equals $228,000 annually.

But he has submitted a lease agreement to the GSA for its approval that would cost $650,000 a year. He wants to rent the entire 56th floor of the chic 60-story Carnegie Hall Tower at 152 W. 57th St., which features views of Central Park and the Hudson River.

"I am very concerned that the figures presented to Congress were never revised, even though the former president and perhaps GSA likely knew by December that the proposed rent would exceed the amount specified in the bill," Mr. Istook wrote.

"They went through the whole year saying, 'This is how much we want for rent for former President Clinton,' " said Mr. Istook, who heads the treasury, postal and general government appropriations subcommittee. "Now we're told they want three times as much."

The rent is more than that of all living ex-presidents combined.

Former President Ronald Reagan's California office costs taxpayers $285,000. Former President George Bush's Texas office costs $147,000; former President Jimmy Carter's in Georgia, $93,000, and former President Gerald Ford's in Michigan, $99,000. That totals $624,000 $26,000 less than Mr. Clinton wants taxpayers to pay for his office space.

There is one easy solution, Mr. Istook said.

"Maybe former President Clinton will do the right thing and dip into his own pocket, perhaps, and pay the difference if he wants this type of space for his office," he suggested.

Mr. Clinton already has a lucrative new job: professional speaker.

He will hit the post-presidential lecture circuit next week, making a pair of speeches in Florida.

The fee for the first speech, at a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter convention, is reported to be $100,000.

Asked about the expensive Manhattan office lease, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said to laughter: "Well, that's only seven speeches. Anybody who serves for eight years in that position, they deserve whatever they can get. But I have to admit, they've gotten quite a bit."

Told that taxpayers not Mr. Clinton will pay, Mr. Hatch said: "Seriously? We have to pay his $700,000 Manhattan office space bill? I know of some space right down here you could probably get for $200 a month. Well, that wouldn't be fair maybe $1,000 a month would be good."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said the charges are just more of the same from disgruntled Republicans.

"They can't pass legislation, they can only do investigations. Why should anybody expect them to stop now? We should admire their consistency.

"You know, the investigations they held for six years of President Clinton made sure that he left office with a higher favorability rating than even President Reagan had. By God, they're going to if they keep on this for another six years, I'm probably going to be in Rome while he's canonized a saint, a living saint."

Said Clinton spokesman Jake Siewert: "Congress has to recognize that Bill Clinton is no longer president and that they have to find someone else to investigate."

But Peter Sepp, spokesman of the National Taxpayers Union, said the matter has nothing to do with Clinton-bashing but about use of taxpayer money.

"What began as a program to offer office space to ex-presidents has mutated into a program that lands Bill Clinton in the lap of luxury. It's a typical example of Washington's overblown response to a relatively manageable problem," he said.

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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