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House Ethics Committee Democrat To Step Aside

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Jan. 14) -- After accepting an improperly recorded cellular telephone conversation, the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee announced he would step aside from the probe of House Speaker Newt Gingrich "as a matter of conscience." McDermott

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) released a statement late today saying "as soon as steps are taken to preserve the equal ratio" between Republicans and Democrats on the ethics committee, he will recuse himself from the case. The committee normally has five members from each party.

The committee is scheduled to vote on a punishment for Gingrich's ethics violation in less than a week, but McDermott evidently is succumbing to GOP outrage over a Florida couple's tape recording of a cellular telephone conversation that included Gingrich which they later handed over to McDermott.

In his statement McDermott also took parting shots at Ethics Committee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who he accused of ignoring evidence of Gingrich breaking his agreement.

"I can no longer participate in this charade," McDermott said. "At every turn the Republican majority on the committee has delayed, stonewalled or otherwise obstructed sensible efforts to get at the whole truth."

Johnson responded to McDermott's charges of partisanship and unfairness in a written statement, saying, "I will not allow angry partisanship to divert the committee from its job of providing the public and the Congress with complete information in the Gingrich case."

"We are moving forward to provide full public disclosure of every aspect of this case to be followed by a hearing and a vote on the House floor," Johnson said.

The tape, now in the hands of Justice Department lawyers, revealed a conversation between Gingrich and several GOP allies which dealt with a strategy for responding to the ethics committee charges against the speaker. Though Democrats say the conversation is evidence Gingrich violated his agreement with the ethics panel not to coordinate a counterattack, it's also illegal to intercept and record cellular conversations.

The couple who made the tape, John and Alice Martin, are longtime Democrats and active in the National Education Association. They say they began taping the conversation simply because they thought it would make a good gift for their soon-to-be-born grandchild.

Realizing its possible significance, they contacted their congressional representative, Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), who sealed the tape in an evelope. Thurman gave the tape back to the Martins who delivered the tape in person to Rep. McDermott on a trip to Washington, D.C.

Republicans have been pressing since Friday for criminal probe of McDermott and the Martins. The FBI has opened an investigation into whether any federal laws were broken in the taping or distribution of the call.

Bill Paxon

"I find it hard to buy that this couple that were very, very active in the Democratic Party in their community ... are unaware that it is a felony crime to listen in and monitor private cellular phone conversations," groused New York House Republican Bill Paxon today. "Everyone involved in this has committed serious crimes, but most importantly we have Democratic members of Congress who are involved in this."

It's still not clear who leaked the transcript of the tape to news sources, though Republicans suspect it was McDermott. In today's editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, McDermott skirted the issue, saying he had been "tenacious" in abiding by committee rules. "The discussion of substance is absolutely prohibited and I have never discussed substance."

Under federal law, someone convicted of monitoring cellular phone conversations and passing them on to another party can face up to $250,000 in fines and six years in prison. This morning, the Martins, who have been speaking to reporters with their attorney Larry Turner, expressed dismay over the political firestorm their actions have produced.

"We're totally shocked," said Mrs. Martin. "We felt that once it was turned over to our congresswoman that that was the end of the story for us, that we had done what we had thought was right to do. Then, when it came back into our hands, then when we felt after we turned it over to the ethics...committee that was the end of it for us ..."

The flap has, for the time being, created an opening for Republicans eager to cloud the ethics case of Speaker Gingrich. The speaker acknowledged ethics violations on Dec. 21, and the House has been embroiled in a dispute over what his punishment should be and whether he is fit to continue as speaker.


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