Communications executive Rupert Murdoch was accompanied by his Washington lobbyist when he met with Newt Gingrich in late November, and the three men discussed his fight over federal regulations that could cost him billions of dollars, Murdoch’s spokesman said Saturday.
At that time, Gingrich was negotiating with HarperCollins for a $4.5 million advance on two books. Murdoch’s company owns HarperCollins.
Murdoch is fighting charges by NBC and the NAACP that his Fox TV stations are illegally owned by a foreign company. Congress is considering a GOP bill that would lift the ban on foreign ownership of U.S. TV stations. The lobbyist, Preston Padden, is Murdoch’s point man in dealing with the matter.
Even though the speaker eventually declined the advance under political pressure, he still stands to make royalties on the sale of the books - a deal that could bring him millions.
“You start with the fact that Gingrich had a financial relationship with an entity that had significant issues before the government,” said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif. “When you tie together the personal benefit, the policy issues and the lobbying process, you have to look at this further.”
Spokesmen for Murdoch and Gingrich reiterated Saturday that nothing improper occurred at the meeting, on Nov. 28, and that the book deal was not discussed there.
But the disclosure of the lobbyist’s presence prompted additional Democratic lawmakers to urge the speaker to call for an outside counsel to clear the air.
“This is getting to be a pretty incredible story,” House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan said.
“Newt will accede to an outside counsel or it will be imposed on him,” he said.
“The speaker has to come clean. This is now the fourth version of a meeting that the speaker said originally never happened,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said Saturday. “First the meeting did not happen, then it was just a courtesy visit, then it was about substance.
“Now it turns out, not only was it about substance, but a high-paid Washington lobbyist for Mr. Murdoch was also in the room with the speaker.”
The Democrats stopped short of saying they would go to the House floor to call for an outside counsel themselves.
The House ethics committee is already reviewing Gingrich’s book contract and other financial matters, including his political action committee and a college course he teaches.
Howard J. Rubenstein, Murdoch’s spokesman, said Saturday that when Murdoch met with Gingrich, they spent “95 percent” of their time discussing the expected changes that the newly elected Republican congressional majority would bring to Washington.
“In passing, there was mention of the NBC challenge,” he added, referring to the network’s argument that Murdoch’s Fox Television Stations violate federal regulations against foreign ownership of broadcast licenses. NBC contends that Fox is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., which is based in Australia, but Murdoch, now a U.S. citizen, contends that he is the owner.
The NAACP said minorities are being deprived of investment opportunities.
Rubenstein said Padden had accompanied Murdoch because he always did so when the executive went to Capitol Hill, which he has been doing for years.
Gingrich’s spokesman, Tony Blankley, said Saturday that his office had not told reporters before that the lobbyist had been present because no one had asked, although he told The Daily News on Friday that he knew nothing about it.
“The essentials remain as they were,” Blankley said of the meeting. “There was no discussion of the book deal, no discussion of pending legislation, the meeting lasted a few minutes, it took place in a public room, and there are no allegations that anything improper occurred. And even if they did discuss pending legislation, there is nothing improper about that.”
As for any role that Gingrich’s pending book deal might have played in the discussions, Blankley said, “Murdoch didn’t know his company was in negotiations, and Newt didn’t know Murdoch owned Harper, so there was no possibility for any quids and pros and quos to be talked about.”
Gingrich’s ties with Murdoch are prompting GOP senators to talk about dropping the bill’s provision that would take Murdoch off the hook.
“If it puts Newt in an awkward position, or might embarrass him, (Senate GOP Majority Leader Robert) Dole would love to do it,” one aide said.