Throwing the book at it

Allegations of deceptive politics and public giveaways shroud plans for the Clinton presidential library.

Published July 6, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

Ah, the presidential library. After eight years of scandal and intrigue,
President Clinton is dreaming of a $125 million facility in Little Rock, Ark.,
that will serve as both a getaway and international think tank. It will be a
refuge where Clinton can come and stay in an adjoining posh apartment and focus
on international diplomacy issues and domestic race relations. The center will
also serve as both a library and a museum to honor Clinton's legacy in concrete
and offer a place for 21st century thinkers to gather and ... think.

But like all things Clinton, plans for the new facility have already been
ensnared in scandal. Some of the president's opponents back home in Little Rock
have decried using public funds for the facility. While money for construction
will come from private donors, the city of Little Rock has agreed to provide the
land for the library, valued at an estimated $15 million. While Clinton tours
glitzy galas in Los Angeles and New York with his hand out, a political war has
erupted back home in Arkansas over the public giveaway.

It all began in 1997, when the Clintons chose a site for the library near Little
Rock's revitalized River Market District. The area is now teeming with shops,
restaurants and bars, only a few blocks away from the Old Statehouse where
Clinton made his two presidential acceptance speeches.

But the neighboring city of North Little Rock, which also wants the presidential library, has accused
Little Rock of a shady scheme to lure the Clintons to its side of the river.
North Little Rock officials allege Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey promised the
Clintons the city would buy the 27 acres of land needed for the library. A $15
million commitment was made by the city although no means of financing existed.

The Board of Directors, Little Rock's version of the city council, rejected
several financing possibilities. A 1 percent tax on restaurants and hotels
proposed only a few days after the site selection stirred restaurateurs into
protest. The idea was quickly quashed.

Finally, the city approved a way to fund a revenue bond that would use its
proceeds to acquire the library land without an election. The bond issue, though,
created fireworks. Tax opponent Nora Harris sued the city in 1998 for illegal use
of the bonds.

"I'm not against the library or Clinton," said Harris, a Republican. "I'm against
the city using money illegally."

Harris' attorney, David Henry, contended that money from the general fund is
indirectly funding the $16.4 million bond issue. That's because general fund
money is replacing lost park user-fee revenue that is paying debt service for the
library bonds.

A year after the lawsuit was filed, Pulaski County Chancellor Alice Gray finally
ruled last week that the city was fair in its use of bond revenues, giving the
go-ahead to the Clinton project. Harris said she will appeal to the Arkansas
Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Gene Pfeifer, a North Little Rock businessman, also plans to fight the
city, which still must acquire three parcels of land to amass the promised 27
acres. Pfeifer owns one of the three lots. In December the process of
condemnation began when an agreement on a purchase price failed.

Pfeifer and his attorney plan to argue that the city does not need that much
acreage. And it doesn't help that Pfeifer is questioning the way Little Rock
wooed the president to its side. The North Little Rock property could have been
acquired for much less and without hassle from property owners. Pfeifer has taken
advertisements out in local newspapers and written op-ed pieces about the issue.

"There is not even any evidence that Clinton was aware that North Little Rock
made a firm proposal," says Pfeifer. "It all just needs to be looked at closely."

Late last week, the Little Rock Board of Directors said it was having second
thoughts about its initial plan to change the name of the historic street leading
to the Clinton shrine from Markham Street to President Clinton Avenue. The city
made the decision in the waves of euphoria after Clinton chose the site.

"If someone brought it up and wanted to change [the renaming], I'd take it into
consideration," says Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick. "I was caught up in the moment and
voted to change it. There's a lot of sentiment out there against the city and
against Clinton and a lot of water under the bridge since 1997."

While controversy brews in Little Rock, Clinton continues to think about an
architect and spend evenings with visionaries who will help him create his
presidential masterpiece.

Last week, Clinton began informal fund-raising for the library when he attended a
dinner at La Grenouille on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan with about 40
business executives. The New York Times was quick to point out the ethical
implications of Clinton's movement toward raising money for the library while
still in office. But Ronald Reagan started his fund-raising efforts way earlier in
his second term.

By law, Clinton cannot solicit contributions as president. He can meet with
potential donors and soften them up for dollars in the future. And that's what
he's doing.

DreamEorks moguls David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Ronald W. Burkle, the
California supermarket magnate, have reportedly pledged generous amounts for the
library. Rutherford says he would not be surprised if Spielberg integrated
futuristic technology into the library.

Skip Rutherford, president of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential
Foundation, said he does not foresee a problem fund-raising for the library, even
though Clinton has been tarnished by scandal. "It won't be hard," he said. "The
president still has many supporters."

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

MORE FROM Suzi Parker

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Steven Spielberg