When the Clintons left the White House last week, they hauled away a small fortune in gifts — and set off a new ethics controversy.
Financial disclosure reports show President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted $190,027 in gifts last year — more than any previous first couple.
Like newlyweds, the outgoing president and the just-elected junior senator from New York were feted and lavished with gifts by the same friends and backers who had filled the coffers of their political campaigns.
In the final days of their administration, Clinton supporters even took the extraordinary step of setting up an account akin to a gift registry with Borsheim's, a high-end jewelery and china dealership owned by billionaire financier Warren Buffett.
Mrs. Clinton discovered Borsheim's last spring while visiting Omaha, where Buffett hosted a fundraiser that brought in about $100,000 for her Senate campaign. The Omaha World-Herald reported at the time that she spent two hours in the store with Buffett, and left with three shopping bags.
Nine months later, ABCNEWS has learned, Clinton's Beverly Hills friend Rita Pynoos asked other supporters to give generously to help the first family launch their new life. A source close to one of those solicited confirmed Pynoos had suggested a $5,000 contribution.
But rather than send a check to the White House, the Clinton backer was asked to send a check to Borsheim's. The donor also was asked to rush the payment in before Jan. 3, when Senate ethics rules would bar Sen. Clinton from receiving such gifts. Other supporters confirm they too were asked to contact Borsheim's.
It's impossible to tell how many of the gifts listed on the Clinton's final disclosure forms were given in those final days, or which were purchased from Borsheim's. But the Clintons listed $50,000 worth of furniture, $10,000 in flatware and $22,000 in china.
Pynoos herself gave nearly $6,000 worth of flatware and cashmere.
A spokesman for the Dreamworks SKG film studios said actress Kate Capshaw, wife of movie mogul Steven Spielberg, honored the Clintons in December by hosting a housewarming shower. Their gift alone — china — totalled nearly $5,000. More infamous than famous was another contributor: Denise Rich, a fugitive financier's ex-wife, who gave the Clintons two coffee tables and two chairs totalling $7,375 in value.
Rich has given more than $1 million to Democrats since 1993, but insists her financial support has "absolutely nothing to do with" President Clinton's decision, one of his last official acts, to pardon her ex-husband — a billionaire on the lam in Europe while wanted on more than 50 counts by several U.S. law enforcement agencies.
The pardon infuriated U.S. attorneys working on the case, who said Clinton made the decision without even consulting them. In an interview today on ABC's Good Morning America, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the chain of events raised disturbing questions.
"The wife of a fugitive from justice can give a million dollars, and by the way $7,000 in furniture to the Clintons, avoiding technically the gift ban for United States senators because Mrs. Clinton wasn't sworn in yet, and all of a sudden the guy gets a pardon," McCain said. "No one can understand why ... a fugitive from justice would get a pardon."
Money for Nothing
Ex-President Clinton says money had nothing to do with his decision to pardon Rich, saying the fugitive's lawyer, Jack Quinn, made a compelling case for the pardon on the merits. Quinn was one of the many lawyers who helped handle Clinton's impeachment trial.
"I spent a lot of time on that case. I think there are very good reasons for it," Clinton told reporters this weekend at a deli near his new home in Chappaqua, N.Y. "I spent a lot of personal time talking because it's an unusual case, but Quinn made a strong case and I was convinced he was right on the merits. And that's all I can say."
Quinn told the New York Times today that he managed to convince Clinton that Rich's case was best handled as a civil case, rather than a criminal matter. Rich was indicted for, among other things, illegally buying oil from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.
Sen. Clinton has kept quiet on the issue. But her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, denied the gifts were inappropriate.
"The gifts the Clintons received, they disclosed on their disclosure forms," Wolfson said. "She has fulfilled her Senate ethics obligations."
Chris Vlasto, Ariane DeVogue, Ann Compton and Jackie Judd contributed to this report.