Lawsuit on value of Nixon's presidential materials winds down
Tuesday, November 16th 1999, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Nixon's resignation speech, an emotional address to the nation in which he declared "I am not a
quitter," was played today for a federal judge who must decide the value of papers, photos and secret tape recordings he left behind.
In closing remarks, Nixon estate lawyer R. Stan Mortenson flipped on a television and replayed a tape of Nixon's resignation speech on Aug. 8, 1974. The former president's words broke the silence of the courtroom: "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is complete is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. ... Therefore I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."
Mortenson played the tape for U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn to emphasize the historic nature of the 42 million pages of
documents, 3,700 hours of tapes and hundreds of photos the government seized when Nixon resigned. The Nixon estate says it wants $35.5 million, plus millions in interest. Justice Department lawyers remain opposed to any
compensation, but say if something must be paid, a fair value would be no more than $2.2 million. "The court should put an end to this
attempt by the Nixon estate to obtain a windfall from the taxpayers," the government said in its post-trial brief.
In his closing argument, Mortenson said the government felt the documents were important enough to seize them but now says the estate should get no compensation. "What does the government say?" he asked. "The government says it's worth nothing -- zip, zero, nada, nothing."
Fights over the Nixon collection began in 1974 when he resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate scandal. Congress passed a
law confiscating what Nixon left behind, and over the years hundreds of thousands of documents and hundreds of hours of tapes
have been open for public perusal. Six years after his materials were seized, Nixon sued for compensation, which he claimed he was
entitled to because, as opposed to current law, presidential documents were deemed personal, not government property.
In 1991, the judge, who is hearing the case without a jury, ruled that Nixon was entitled to nothing. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington overruled Penn and ordered him to conduct this new trial.
Lawyers not only value the Nixon collection differently, they disagree over how to interpret a law that outlines the way property owners are to be compensated by the government. The case pivots on this legal argument.
Justice Department lawyers argue that the value of the Nixon collection must be based on its existing use at the time it was seized -- unless a more profitable use was likely in the near future. Since Nixon intended his materials to be put in a presidential library, the government contends the collection must
be valued as a vast historical archive. It would have been hard to sell the collection, they argue, partly because classified information had not yet been extracted from any of the materials and Watergate prosecutors were still using them.
The government claims the Nixon estate failed to show that selling the former president's tapes, papers and photographs was probable in 1974. "That, in a nutshell, is the most salient reason why the Nixon estate is entitled to no compensation," the government lawyers wrote.
Lawyers for Nixon's estate, which represents his two daughters and The Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation at Yorba
Linda, Calif., interpret the law differently. They say that even though Nixon was not planning to sell thematerials, he could have. "In short, the court must, in valuing
property seized by the government, consider all available economic uses of the property," the Nixon lawyers wrote.
The Nixon lawyers paraded more than a half-dozen appraisers to the witness stand during five months of trial to show that the material would have been a hot item on the auction block. Mortenson cites several historical documents, including Nixon self-critiques.
"He sat down and literally did a checklist -- a kind of self-evaluation: `What am I doing right this year? What should my goals be for the future?"' Mortenson said. "They are
extraordinary. For the government to say that they're worth zero is just laughable."