The House Ethics Committee on Wednesday found that Speaker Newt Gingrich had violated House rules by misusing official resources and voted unanimously to hire a special counsel to investigate allegations that he improperly used tax-deductible donations to finance his teaching of a college course.
The committee, after nearly a year of stalled secret negotiations, issued a strongly worded, three-page letter to the Georgia Republican criticizing his conduct.
The panel said the speaker sought “to capitalize” on his office “for personal gain” by securing a lucrative book contract with a company owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. In the end, however, the committee dismissed that complaint and one other for which it officially found no wrongdoing.
As part of a compromise between the five Democrats and five Republicans on the committee, the panel decided not to punish Gingrich for actions challenged in the three complaints in which he was found to have broken House rules. The complaints charged that he deployed a GOP political consultant in the speaker’s office and twice promoted political ventures on the House floor.
But even with those five complaints dismissed, the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the sixth complaint could lead to a broad review of Gingrich’s conduct.
“This is just a start,” said Ben Jones, a former Democratic lawmaker who ran against Gingrich in 1994 and filed the ethics complaint that is the basis for the appointment of the independent counsel. “There’s a lot more here than there was in the (Jim) Wright case,” he said, referring to the Democratic House speaker whom Gingrich helped force from office in 1989. “There’s been a pattern of arrogant disregard of ethics for many years.”
Gingrich waved off reporters seeking comment late Wednesday night. In a written statement, he tried to put the best face on the committee’s decision, emphasizing that all but one of the charges were dismissed. He said he was “pleased by the unanimous bipartisan action of the Ethics Committee and I am confident after the committee examines the remaining charge (that) it, too, will be dismissed.”
“This has been a very painful process for my wife, my family and me personally,” he added.
It is unclear whether the outside counsel will be given free rein to investigate the involvement of GOPAC, Gingrich’s political committee, in financing the college course that he taught until this year. If the counsel is given a green light to explore all of GOPAC’s records and dealings, including alleged favors in return for contributions, then Gingrich “has a serious, serious problem, one that could spell his political demise,” Jones said.
The investigation by an outside counsel will lead to a decision either to file formal charges or dismiss the case. If the committee finds the speaker guilty of major violations, it would recommend punishment to the House, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion.
In any case, the hiring of a special counsel makes it virtually certain that the investigation will extend well into the 1996 election year.
After more than six hours of in tense negotiations Wednesday, the Ethics Committee emerged with a compromise. The panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, took these actions:
It voted, 10-0, to hire a special counsel to determine whether laws were violated with Gingrich’s “knowledge and approval” to raise tax-deductible donations from political supporters to finance his Renewing American Civilization course at Kennesaw State College and Reinhart College in Georgia.
It concluded that Gingrich had violated House rules that prohibit the use of outside resources for official purposes by allowing Joseph Gaylord, a close political adviser paid with private funds, to work in the speaker’s office last year. Gaylord’s routine activities in House offices created “the appearance of the improper commingling of political and official resources,” the panel said. “Such activities, if they are continuing, should cease immediately.”
It decided that Gingrich had misused the forum of the House floor by promoting his college course and reciting a toll-free number for ordering his lecture tapes. The committee said that the use of an 800 number was “an improper solicitation” and that the “House floor should not be used for commercial purposes.”
It found that Gingrich similarly violated House rules by using the floor to promote a nationwide town meeting sponsored by GOPAC.
It determined that current House rules in fact permitted Gingrich to use his prestige as speaker to negotiate a $4.5 million book contract with Harper Collins to write “To Renew America.” While concluding that Gingrich had not broken any rules, the committee said: “At a minimum, this creates the impression of exploiting one’s office for personal gain. Such a perception is especially troubling when it pertains to the office of the speaker of the House.”
Gingrich tore up the contract after a storm of public criticism and agreed to accept a $1 advance and standard 15 percent royalties for hardcover book sales and 7.5 percent for all paperbacks sold. The committee proposed legislation to subject book royalties to the annual limit of $20,040 on lawmakers’ outside income.
It dismissed a complaint alleging that Gingrich improperly accepted free services from a cable television company to broadcast his college course.