I read in the newspaper the other day that former President Clinton and his wife left the White House with about $200,000 in parting gifts. It tempts one to count the spoons in the kitchen when guests like these leave "the people's house."
I want to give the Clintons the benefit of the doubt in this latest misstep, but the exercise in charity isn't working very well. Their taking of gifts reminded me of an incident in my own 15-year experience in the service of the federal government.
About 10 years ago, I took a photo of a visiting New York City businessman who spoke with a Treasury colleague. The visitor was in his 50s, balding, had a shambling gait and reminded me of a broken umbrella. But somehow, the picture turned out to be pretty good. About a month later, the businessman asked my colleague if he could have the negative. I sent it. The guy's mother liked the way he looked.
Three weeks later, I received a small package from the gentleman, with a thank you note and a necktie from Barney's inside. The visitor was so happy with the photo that he sent me a gift. As required, I sent the tie and a completed questionnaire on the particular circumstances related to my good fortune to what we called the "gift police" at Treasury. This was an office set up, among other things, to deal with occasional favors officials might receive from a citizen.
To be honest, I didn't covet the tie. It was the color of old snow with what looked like a tire tread running through it. I don't think Marlon Brando would have worn the thing playing Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," but that wasn't the point. At Treasury, nobody gets anything unless it's near-worthless, not related to federal business and can be put to general use around the office.
Other than as a noose, this thing didn't qualify. I was chagrined at the time only because our guest later made more than one phone inquiry about whether I liked the tie. My colleague said I liked it so much I was showing it to people in another office.
Perhaps one other anecdote will demonstrate the parsimoniousness of the Treasury Department with respect to its employees. One year, the rain leaked through the Treasury building's roof so severely that it damaged my office ceiling. All the plaster collapsed on my Dick Tracy-like hat, my trench coat, my files and, another time, on my computer.
I called the lawyers' office that handled this kind of thing and was told I should submit proof of purchase of my hat and coat. It took me some time to dig out the receipts, but I submitted all of the material. I waited. Three months went by, then six.
About a year later, I got another call from the office. "Could you send us another copy of your receipts for the hat and coat? We seem to have misplaced your earlier documents."
"Never mind," I said. "It's OK. Forget about it." I was never a big spender, but I knew when to cut my losses.
Anyway, back to the confiscated tie. The gift police apparently thought the tie had some value. It took them about a year to figure it all out. At the time, I thought the oversight was excessive. Eventually I received notification that my keeping the tie wouldn't have been appropriate.
In retrospect, I'm glad somebody paid attention to this bit of business, even if it was a bother. But I must say that the rules that apply to common folk who work in government don't pertain with any consistency to some of our leaders.
MICHAEL D. LANGAN was a teacher and administrator in Catholic education for 26 years. He served as a vice president at Canisius College and headmaster of Nardin Academy. Before retiring, he worked at the Treasury Department's Office of Enforcement.
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