Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 / 15 Shevat, 5761
Oops, they almost converted
THE WORD "conversion" has a number of definitions, but only one that is legal. In the parlance of the law, a conversion is, as the new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary succinctly puts it, "(a) the unlawful appropriation of another's property; (b) the changing of real property to personal property or vice versa." To convert something is "to appropriate (another's property) without right to one's own use." There is a fine line between converting and stealing. To steal, says the dictionary, is "to take (the property of another) without right or permission."
The only real difference is one of class and manners. A pickpocket steals. A person to whom, by virtue of position, respect is accorded, converts. It's more genteel-like. It's also not necessarily a crime, which is helpful in the gingerly matter of dealing with a light-fingered person of position; one may "convert" property by accident -- for example, if one mistakenly thought that one actually owned the property.
This issue of manners and semantics and intent arose this week in connection with, of course, Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Post reported on Monday that the world's most entertaining former first couple had removed from the White House and taken unto themselves some $28,000 worth of furniture that did not belong to them: two sofas, an easy chair and an ottoman, a kitchen table and four chairs, another sofa, some lamps and a needlepoint rug. All of these items had been donated to the National Park Service as contributions to the 1993 redecoration of the White House residence.
In other words, it seems the Clintons engaged in "the unlawful appropriation of another's property," in this case property that belonged to the U.S. government. They converted it. At least that is how it appears to two former Internal Revenue Service commissioners, who carefully told The Post that, while they were not suggesting criminal wrongdoing, it certainly seemed that the Clinton's takings appeared to be a "conversion of government property." Donald C. Alexander, IRS commissioner under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said the Clintons had "no business taking [the furniture] with them. That is conversion of government property and income to them."
On Monday afternoon, the Clintons, who last week promised to pay for $86,000 in household furnishings they had received from wealthy friends last year, announced that they also would be giving the White House back its furniture. Hillary Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said that the Clintons had thought the furniture did belong to them because the items had been listed by the White House gifts office as "gifts to the Clintons that they could keep or leave behind."
This latter claim is more than just the reflexive Clinton response of blaming the help. It is about intent. If the Clintons knew the furniture belonged to the government but took it anyway, that could be adjudged to be "criminal conversion" -- you know, um, stealing. If they thought it was theirs, they are innocent of criminal intent.
Well, of course they should be accorded the benefit of the doubt. And yet, it does seem odd. The 1993 refurbishing of the White House was a big deal, much discussed and written about because it was personally directed by Mrs. Clinton through her chosen designer, Kaki Hockersmith. It is hard to imagine that Mrs. Clinton did not approve the selection of each piece of furniture donated to the government for her big redecoration project.
When the project was completed, the White House put out a four-page summary listing each person who had donated furniture or furnishings as "contributors to the National Park Service." Mr. and Mrs. Lee Ficks, whose kitchen table and four chairs the Clintons converted and are now returning, received a letter from none other than Mrs. Clinton thanking them for their "generous contribution to the White House."
Nah. I believe
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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