Thursday, January 20, 2011

Beware of Foreigners Bearing Gifts

The annual report on foreign swag was published in the Federal Register this week. Full name: "Gifts to Federal Employees from Foreign Government Sources Reported to Employing Agencies in Calendar Year 2009."

As a very, very, minor official myself, the only gifts I've even gotten from foreign government sources were a couple nice but utilitarian pens, some superior knickknacks like a miniature drum of Arabian crude oil, and the like. All far below the level of value that would be reportable. So I'm green with envy to read about some of this boodle.

There were gifts of the edible kind:

Four boxes of dates and twelve bottles of wine given to President Obama by the Algerian President. Value - $500.00. "Disposition - Handled Pursuant to Secret Service Policy."

I wonder how the Secret Service disposes of twelve bottles of wine? Probably not by pouring them out.

There were gifts of the sartorial kind:

Twelve handmade silk ties given to Obama by President Berlusconi of Italy. Value - $1,680.00.

That's a very appropriate choice for a protocol gift, showcasing fine national craftsmanship.

There were fancy pens:

An S.T. Dupont fountain pen, along with a book about S.T. Dupont Limited Editions, given to Obama by President Sarkozy of France. Value - $1,185.00.

I had read that Sarkozy is a fountain pen freak (so am I), so I second that choice.

There were lots of high-end accessories like this one:

Black Christian Dior handbag given to Michele Obama by Carla Sarkozy. Value - $4,500.00.

Handbags cost that much??? I glad my wife isn’t interested in that sort of thing. She just bought a new handbag, and I doubt the price was into the three figure range, much less the mid four figures.

The Saudis are in a gift-giving league of their own, of course:

One pair of silver cuff links, one male watch, one female watch, one silver pen, and one diamond jewelry set including earrings, a ring, and a bracelet, presented in a green leather case. Given to all visiting White House aides on a June 2009 visit. Value - $4,575.00.

I like how the Saudis cover all the bases with an all-purpose goodie bag for lesser dignitaries. Pens, watches, and male and female jewelry, all inside a presentation case that probably doubles as a briefcase. Very nice. They must have a warehouse full of those kits.

There were gifts of the narcissistic kind:

Britain's Queen Elizabeth presented Obama with framed portraits of herself and her husband, Prince Philip. According to news reports that's the gift she gives to all visiting dignitaries.

That occurred during the same 2009 visit at which Obama receprocated by giving the queen an iPod loaded with video and photos of her 2007 trip to the United States. Royalty must like to gaze at its own image.

There was this rather curious gift:

A bottle of olive oil, given to Obama by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. Value - $75

I assume that was a symbolic local product made with Palestinian olives, but, didn't Abbas sort of cheap-out on that gift? That's more like a duty-free store purchase than a protocol gift.

And then there were the guns and knives:

Non-operational Soviet-era chrome pistol in a wooden presentation box, given to William Taylor, Director, Iraq Reconstruction Management Officer, U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq, by the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

Non-operational pistol? Bleah. That's like giving a kid a toy without the batteries.

AKS–74 rifle given to a CIA Employee. Location - On official display at the Agency.

An operational rifle. Now we’re talking.

Metallic dagger with leather backing, leather belt and bone handle, given to Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations of the United States by the Commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Shotgun and 5 bullets [sic] given to Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense of the United States by the Minister of Defense of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Military dagger with sheath in wooden presentation box given to Defense Secretary Gates by His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Ceremonial sword with case, given to The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States by The Honorable Dr. Ali Bin Fetais Al-Marri, Attorney General of the State of Qatar.

Six decorative ceremonial weapons presented in a glass case, given to Obama by His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Arab leaders give the coolest gifts, don't they? No contest.

Normally, protocol gifts are delivered to the National Archives for display, or to the General Services Administration for disposal (public auction, I wonder?), or they are retained for official use. But a recipient may choose to purchase the gift and keep it.

Here are two who did:

Three E. Marinella scarves, given to The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, by Italian President Silvio Berlusconi. Value - $877.50. "Location - One scarf to be purchased and personally retained by Member; two scarves transferred to Office of the Clerk."

A 21K gold ring with a green stone, value - $980.00, given to The Honorable Joan Polaschik, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Tripoli, Libya, by Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi, Leader of the Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. "Location - Recipient Wishes to Purchase."

DCM Polaschik must really like that ring. She ought to be relieved that Qadhafi didn't also give her a locket with his photo inside, which was how he expressed his misguided affection for Condoleezza Rice.

I see that our Congressional VIPs sometimes keep the gifts and skip the part where they purchase them:

The Honorable John B. Larson, Member of Congress. Six handmade silk neckties given by the President Berlusconi of Italy. Value - $420.00. "Location - Four ties personally retained by Member; two ties transferred to Office of the Clerk.

The Honorable George Miller, Member of Congress, received eight of Burlusconi's ties and retained four.

The Honorable Bill Pascrell, Jr., Member of Congress, received six ties and kept four.

The report says these three legislators retained the ties, not that they purchased and retained them, the way DCM Polaschik did with her ring.

That is so informative about Congressional ethics. And notice they didn’t keep all the ties, just most of them. As if they were saying "I’ll make a gesture at meeting ethical expectations. I'll turn in two and keep four. That way I’m one-third ethical, in case anybody's counting."

And what’s with those estimated values? Eight ties for $560? Six for $420? That’s $70 apiece. I don't think President Berlusconi gets those custom handmade silk ties out of a discount bin.

By the way, you can see the British equivalent of our swag report here. From the looks of it, the Brits get much less impressive gifts from foreigners than our own officials do. I mean - a travel alarm clock? A bathrobe and slippers? Even our most junior Congressman would turn his nose up at that kind of trifle.


Donna said...

Here's what I've never been able to figure out: how do we determine how much these things cost? I mean, you can't really ask how much someone spent on you, can you? When someone hands the President a gift, does an aide ask to see the receipt? And what if the giver refuses to disclose how much it cost, or doesn't know? Seriously, this drives me crazy wondering.

TSB said...

I know, and the estimated values are often so very specific: Joan Polaschik's ring cost $980 - not a round number like $1,000 - and Nancy Pelosi's scarf cost $877.50 to the penny.

They must use a professional art appraiser, and maybe some formula based on recent purchase prices for identical items. I think the IRS has regulations for estimating the fair market value of donated items, and those might apply.

It's crazy that foreign governments give such high value items, like the Saudi's Briefcase-O'-Jewelry, when they must know that stuff will go straight to the GSA for disposal. It's conspicuous excess just for the sake of excess.

Symbolic gifts with historic/cultural meaning are much more practical. Like that desk set the UK gave to Obama that was made with wood from the Royal Navy ship that enforced their prohibition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That was first-rate.

Anonymous said...

I like how the same rules apply to both the legislative and executive branches of govt...

TSB said...

I guess the legislative branch operates on the honor system, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Estimated values are found through online research & unique items are appraised by a licensed contract appraiser. The White House has a Gift Office that handles gifts to POTUS/FLOTUS/WH Staff.

During the budget crisis, shouldn't all gifts should be turned over to GSA for auction? Or could we at least re-gift?

TSB said...

Re-gifting! That's the way to go. The Saudi gifts alone could be run through a chop-shop and turned into enough nice trinkets to meet all our protocol giving needs.

Anonymous said...

There was an office joke that floated around about how quickly certain OPEC nations would stop handing out gold Rolex watches if we told them that we were giving them to the Israelis (staff couldn't accept them).

Maybe during G8 or APEC, there could be a white elephant swap in between meetings or in lieu of the group photo ops.

TSB said...

Kind of a Summit Conference Mystery Grab Bag? I love it. Somebody else would get Obama's $4,000 limited edition fountain pen, and he might get stuck with the bathrobe and slippers that were given to David Cameron.