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Paying The Price

Newt Gingrich

Talk about ethics charges! Breaking the rules will cost Newt Gingrich $300,000

By Richard Lacayo

(TIME, January 27) -- There are some moments in Washington life when it seems as if the entire political class is conspiring to prove that the rules are...that there are no rules. The mayhem surrounding Newt Gingrich's ethical problems has that feel to it. In the past few weeks all the important lines of law and decorum have been crossed--by Gingrich, by House Republicans and Democrats, and above all by the members of the ethics committee charged with keeping those lines neat and tidy. The unusual $300,000 fine levied against the Speaker by the subcommittee that spent two years investigating him may be intended to restore some sense of propriety. But the bitterness and embarrassment of the Gingrich mess will linger in the marbled corridors of the Capitol for some time to come.

When the committee handed down its verdict last week, Gingrich got off with a reprimand, not the censure that would have required him to step down as Speaker. If the full House goes along with the recommendation, that alone will make him the first Speaker in history to be disciplined in any way. But the report by committee counsel James Cole, which says that for years the Speaker flouted House standards of conduct, is tougher than many Republicans expected. And the surprising fine--which is supposed to cover the cost of additional investigation made necessary by Gingrich's slippery replies to committee inquiries--is a lot of money for an offense some in the G.O.P. have described as akin to "jaywalking."

Chairwoman Nancy Johnson of Connecticut did her best to call the penalty "tough and unprecedented compared to past cases." It will be--if the fine comes out of Gingrich's pocket. In a brazen wiggle, his office left open the possibility that the fine could be paid from campaign contributions. That would render it all but meaningless; it would also open him up to the accusations made against Bill Clinton's legal-defense fund--that it's an open door for influence peddlers. In other words, an ethical problem.

Which is one more reason that everybody in Washington is wondering whether Gingrich will still be Gingrich once the dust settles. After two years of denying that he had done anything wrong, the Speaker admitted in December that he had failed to seek proper legal guidance before using contributions to his tax-exempt foundation to finance a college lecture course, one that even he said was aimed at the partisan goal of electing a G.O.P. Congress. He also admitted turning in false information to committee investigators.

The final report that Cole put before the committee on Friday made it clear that he believed Gingrich had broken the law. He had ignored plain understandings, Cole told the committee on Friday, that "you're supposed to keep politics and tax-deductible situations separate." And if Gingrich had not sought the legal advice that would have steered him away from that course, it was because he was reckless or knew that no lawyer would let him do what he had in mind.

Because G.O.P. members said they weren't ready to accuse Gingrich of violating tax laws, the subcommittee left that question to the Internal Revenue Service. If an IRS investigation further undercuts the Speaker's credibility, House Republicans, who are already talking privately about possible successors, may yet give up on him, despite his gifts as a strategist and a party fund raiser. In the vote to re-elect him as Speaker two weeks ago, nine of the 227 House Republicans defected. A dozen more would have cost him the job. Says an aide to a G.O.P. leader: "The vultures are definitely circling."

Luckily for him, Gingrich has the Democrats. Their game plan for capitalizing on his misfortunes can be summed up this way: 1) Draw pistol. 2) Aim squarely at own foot. 3) Fire. After much negotiation, Democrats and Republicans on the ethics committee agreed two weeks ago to subject Gingrich to public hearings that would have filled C-SPAN's daytime schedule for days. But then committee Democrats forgot one of the rules of politics--quit while you're ahead. They called a press conference to complain that the schedule they had just agreed to would require the House to decide the Speaker's punishment before Cole had finished his report, then due on Feb. 4.

True enough, but their sniping enraged committee chairwoman Johnson, who struck back by giving the Democrats what they asked for. She moved up Cole's deadline to last Thursday, with hearings to begin after that. They had to conclude before the House met this week to vote on the Speaker's punishment, guaranteeing they would be brief. Democrats screamed it was against House rules for Johnson to unilaterally undo the earlier decision. The House parliamentarian, whose job it is to pronounce on the rules, agreed. But the rules are, there are no rules.

Meanwhile, Democrats turned the spotlight on themselves by trying to exploit the illegally taped conference call between Gingrich, his lawyer Ed Bethune and a group of Republican House leaders. As part of the December deal with the ethics committee, in which he admitted guilt, Gingrich had promised not to orchestrate a counterattack on the committee's judgment. But on the tape, Gingrich and the other parties to his call are mulling over how to spin the news of his admissions.

One of them, Ohio Representative John Boehner, was joining in on a cellular car phone in Florida. That made the call susceptible to electronic eavesdropping by John Martin, a school maintenance man from Fort White, Florida, and his wife Alice, a teacher's aide. The Martins are Democratic Party activists who happen to keep a police radio scanner and a tape recorder in their car. As they explained in a press conference last week, they picked up Boehner's conversation, realized that Gingrich was also on the line and excitedly taped the call as "a part of history." Two and a half weeks later, they passed the tape to Representative Jim McDermott, the Seattle Congressman who was the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. Soon after, it found its way to the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which published excerpts.

In his report, investigator Cole said the committee felt that Gingrich had violated his agreement not to supervise a campaign in his own defense. But the Martins, as well as McDermott, may have violated state and federal law, which makes it a crime to listen in deliberately to a telephone call or to disclose the contents of one that you know has been overheard illegally. FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered an investigation. McDermott had to recuse himself from the Gingrich deliberations. As a diversion from Newt's troubles, the tape tangle was "like a gift from heaven," says a senior House Republican.

None of this is good for the postelection hopes that Democrats and Republicans were on their way to an era of good feeling in which things like the budget and Medicare reform would somehow become manageable. Sounding like a man who saw an opportunity slipping away--as well as one who knows a thing or two about ethical hassles--the President last week implored the House to finish up. "I want it to be over," he begged. "I want it to be over."

It's not over. If in the end Gingrich has to reach into his own pocket, there is always the $471,000 in royalties he is reported to have earned on To Renew America, the 1995 book for which he was originally offered an improbable $4.5 million advance. The New Republic points out this week that the book leans heavily on copyrighted materials developed for Newt's college course by the tax-exempt group that is at the center of his current problems.

That could well be a violation of IRS rules that prohibit tax-exempt organizations from transferring assets to private individuals. It also calls into question Gingrich's claim that he's no Jim Wright--the Democratic Speaker whose ouster he spearheaded--because he never sought to line his own pockets. After taxes, his royalties would have stuffed his pockets with something like $300,000--the amount of his fine. Maybe he should hand it over. If nothing else, it would prove that even when you can't count on the rule of law in Washington, there's always poetic justice.

--Reported by James Carney, Tamala M. Edwards and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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