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House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- April 17, 1997
GINGRICH: I am standing here in the people's house at the center of freedom, and it's clear to me that for America to be healthy, our House of Representatives must be healthy. The speaker of the House has a unique responsibility in this regard.
When I became speaker of the House, it was the most moving day I could have imagined. It was the culmination of a dream. Little did I know that only two years later, I would go through a very painful time.
During my first two years as speaker, 81 charges were filed against me. Of the 81 charges, 80 were found not to have merit and were dismissed as virtually meaningless.
But the American public might wonder what kind of man has 81 charges brought against him.
Under our system of government, attacks and charges can be brought with impunity against congressmen, sometimes with or without foundation.
Some of these charges involved the college course I taught about renewing American civilization. I am a college teacher by background. After years of teaching, it never occurred to me that teaching a college course about American civilization and the core values that have made our country successful could become an issue.
However, as a precaution, I received the Ethics Committee's approval in advance for teaching the course, and I accepted no payment for teaching the course.
Nonetheless, the course became embroiled in controversy. But the most significant problems surfaced not from teaching the course but from answering the Ethics Committee's inquiries.
Before the 1994 election, the committee asked questions and I submitted a letter in response. The committee agreed that this letter was accurate. Later, I hired a law firm to assist me in answering additional questions coming from the committee.
A letter developed by the law firm became the heart of the problem. I signed that letter, and it became the basis for a later, longer letter signed by an attorney. I was deeply saddened to learn almost two years later that these letters were inaccurate and misleading.
While the letters were developed and drafted by my former attorneys, I bear the full responsibility for them. And I accept that responsibility.
Those letters should not have been submitted. The members of the Ethics Committee should never have to worry about the quality and accuracy of information that that committee receives.
Mainly because these two letters contradicted my own earlier and correct letter, the Ethics Committee spent a great deal of time and money to figure out exactly what happened. For this time and effort, for which I am deeply sorry and deeply regret, I have agreed to reimburse the American taxpayers $300,000 for legal expenses and costs incurred by the committee in its investigation.
It was the opinion of the committee and my own opinion that had accurate information been submitted in those two letters, the investigation would have ended much sooner with less cost to the taxpayer. it was not based on violation of any law or for the misuse of charitable contributions. There was no finding by the committee that I purposely tried to deceive anyone.
To me, it simply seemed wrong to ask the taxpayers to pay for an investigation that should have been unnecessary. That is why I voluntarily agreed to reimburse the taxpayers. Never before in history had a member of Congress agreed to be responsible for the cost of an investigation conducted by a committee of the House.
This $300,000 reimbursement is not a fine, as some have asserted. The settlement itself and the report of the Select Committee on Ethics makes it clear that it is a reimbursement of legal expenses and costs only.
The committee and its special counsel did not stipulate how the reimbursement should be paid. One option is to pay completely with campaign funds. As a matter of law, the attorneys tell me there is little question that my campaign has the legal authority, under existing law and committee rules to pay the reimbursement.
The second option is to pay by means of a legal defense fund. The committee has previously determined that members may set up such a fund.
A third option is to sue the law firm and apply the proceeds to the reimbursement.
And the fourth option is to pay completely with personal funds. As we considered these options, we sought to do what was right for the House, as it relates to future precedents, and for reestablishing the trust of the American people in this vital institution. My campaign could have paid the entire amount and it would have been legal and within past precedents of the House. Yet, on reflection, it was clear that many Americans would have regarded this as another example of politics as usual and of avoiding responsibility.
A law suit against the lawyers who prepared the two documents is a future possibility for me as a citizen. But that option could take years in court. A legal trust fund was in many ways the most appealing.
There is more than adequate precedent for such a fund. Many friends from across the entire country have called to offer contributions. Many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle felt that this was the safest approach.
Yet, on reflection, it was clear that a legal trust fund would simply lead to a new controversy over my role.
I have a higher responsibility as speaker to do the right thing in the right way and to serve responsibly. I also must consider what the personal payment precedent would mean to this House as an institution.
Many of you in this chamber, on both sides of the aisle, have raised serious concerns citing the fear that a personal payment will establish a precedent that could financially ruin members who were assessed cost incurred by special counsels.
In the current environment, who could feel safe?
There should be no precedent that penalizes the spouses and children of our members. But that is what this option could effectively do. And this is something we must address.
Yet the question still remains -- What is the right decision for me and my wife personally? For my family? For this institution? And for the American people?
Marianne and I have spent hours and hours discussing these options. She's here today, and let me say that I have never been prouder of Marianne than over the last few months.
Her ability to endure the press scrutiny, to live beyond the attacks, to enjoy life despite hostilities has been a remarkable thing to observe and a wonderful thing to participate in.
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