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Newt's Influence Slips Away

Gingrich worked the phone hard to save his job, but no matter what the outcome of the vote for Speaker, his influence is already greatly diminished

By Richard Lacayo

TIME Magazine

(TIME, January 13) -- When the history of Newt Gingrich's ethical predicaments is written, one of the better ironies will be that the struggle to decide the Speaker's fate gave rise to--what else?--a whole new ethical funk. No matter what its outcome, the vote on whether Gingrich remains as Speaker of the House will reverberate through the work of the next Congress and its balance of terror between Republicans and Democrats. But before that, Newt's delicate condition and the ways in which his party rushed to his rescue will offer a priceless view of just how badly Washington handles ethical screw-ups. Even when everybody knows that everybody is watching.

For one thing, money--where it comes from, where it goes--has always been at the heart of the charges against Gingrich. In the main, he's accused of improperly taking tax-deductible contributions made to various nonprofit foundations and funneling them into party-building activities for the G.O.P., then misleading the ethics committee when it investigated those dealings. So when it came time to decide his fitness as Speaker, it might have been better if House members had been spared any hints that their future withdrawals from the G.O.P. campaign-finance account might depend on how they voted. Niceties like that are what ethics are all about. But expediency is what politics is often about.

That's why the chief officers of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's own pocketbook for congressional races, were all over the place in the past few weeks, pushing the undecided to get with the program. Anyone in politics will tell you--in the end, your heart is in your campaign chest.

The effort to save Newt reached a peak last week with the release of a letter signed by Representatives Porter Goss of Florida and Steve Schiff of New Mexico, the two Republicans on the four-member ethics subcommittee responsible for investigating Gingrich. As such they were the only Republicans with firsthand knowledge of the range of evidence against him. In their letter they announced their intention to vote for Gingrich and said they knew of "no reason now, nor do we foresee any in the normal course of events in the future, why Newt Gingrich would be ineligible to serve as Speaker."

For members of the ethics committee to make such a statement while a case is still under investigation is highly unusual. Even more unusual, however, is the way the letter originated. Schiff told TIME that it was prepared in response to urgings by Representatives Bill Paxon of New York and John Linder of Georgia, respectively the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the National Republican Congressional Committee. For weeks, both men had been pressing G.O.P. House members in general to get behind Gingrich, advice that would be taken seriously by anybody expecting to need campaign funding for 1998.

But Schiff says Paxon and Linder also reached into the ethics committee itself, first approaching him and Goss several weeks ago to propose that they make public whatever they properly could from the investigation. "Bill Paxon and John Linder had said to us on several occasions they were looking for all possible ways of getting information out to Republican members that could be legally released before the speakership vote, because they said their phones were ringing off the wall with respect to members calling and asking questions. So we knew the leadership wanted--at least that portion of the leadership wanted--information out."

In describing his contacts with Paxon and Linder, Schiff said, "I talked with each of them, probably on a couple of occasions each, and the one thing they each wanted from myself, and, I believe, Porter also, was to know how could as much information as possible be released publicly as soon as possible." What's more, Schiff says he first heard of the letter when an aide to a member of the Republican House leadership read him Goss's handwritten text over the phone and asked if he would join in signing it. Paxon insisted that Schiff and Goss had acted "on their own initiative" but when asked whether he had urged them to release information to House Republicans, declined to elaborate on what he said were "my private conversations with members." Goss declined to comment, and Linder's office did not return calls.

Democrats are only too happy to have the Gingrich affair. It puts into a favorable perspective the serious trouble they know is coming over Democratic fund raising and other scandals attaching to Bill Clinton. If the White House is in for a rough ride, and it is, so much the better for Democrats if the best-known Republican leader is damaged goods, producing more damaged goods in a ring all around him. How damaged? That's what January will be all about. Until just before the New Year, Gingrich thought he could tiptoe past the political graveyard. On Dec. 21 the House ethics committee released a 22-page report based on evidence assembled by James Cole, its special investigator. Most of its findings concerned whether the nationally broadcast college course that Gingrich taught, which was financed by tax-deductible contributions to nonprofit organizations, had partisan purposes. The subcommittee concluded that it had. Most damningly, the panel determined that Gingrich had misled committee investigators by signing false statements declaring that his political organization, GOPAC, had no involvement with the course.

The tax-law questions are intricate, a matter of subclause (a) filtering into subclause (b). But whether Gingrich had partisan purposes for his college course, then denied it to the ethics committee, is less murky, at least on the basis of the committee's report. It offers a full record of instances in which Gingrich declared that his purpose was to raise up a generation of G.O.P. activists. Against those, his bland assurances in at least two letters to the investigating committee that the course was "completely nonpartisan" ring hollow.

So on the same day the committee offered its report, Gingrich issued a letter. Though he denied any intent to mislead the members, he admitted that "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee" over his signature. He claimed to be "naive" about the tax laws. All of that gave him reasonable hope of getting away with just a reprimand, the lightest penalty, from the committee. While even that would be unprecedented for a House Speaker, it would fall short of censure, which would require Gingrich to step down.

Both the report and Gingrich's letter of admission were issued on the Saturday before Christmas, when most Americans were more caught up in shopping than in the weekend papers. In the end, however, too much was at stake for Gingrich's fate to be an easy call. Too many G.O.P. House members had fresh memories of how his unpopularity complicated their re-election campaigns last November. They were in no mood to be asked to put their reputations at further risk by giving him their unqualified support now.

That became a distinct possibility last Tuesday, when the ethics committee announced that it would not begin the final phase of its investigation of Gingrich until Jan. 8, one day after the scheduled vote to re-elect the Speaker. Its schedule meant House members would have to decide on Gingrich without knowing what punishment the committee would recommend. Meanwhile, there was a prospect of more embarrassing disclosures later this month when Cole, the special investigator hired by the committee, will lay out his case.

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