On the day in December when Newt Gingrich admitted bringing discredit on the House, his lawyer told Republican leaders that the speaker had promised an ethics subcommittee not to use his office and his allies to orchestrate a Republican counterattack against the committee’s charges.
That was part of the price for the subcommittee’s agreement to accept his admission of guilt and spare him the potential humiliation of a full-scale public trial.
But that same day, even before the charges had been made public, Gingrich held a telephone conference call with other House leaders in which he made suggestions for a statement that the leaders would issue immediately after the subcommittee’s charges were disclosed.
He also suggested the timing of various responses to Democratic attacks. The politicians agreed among themselves how they could use their opponents’ comments to attack the subcommittee’s findings indirectly without technically violating the agreement that Gingrich’s lawyers made with the ethics subcommittee.
The call was taped by people in Florida who were unsympathetic to Gingrich and heard it on a police scanner that happened to pick up the cell phone transmissions of one of the participants. It was given to a Democratic congressman, who made the tape available to The New York Times.
Gingrich’s office Thursday did not question the authenticity of the conversation, but insisted that it did not violate any agreement with the ethics subcommittee.
The speaker and his allies acknowledged at the time that their conversation was a bit “premature,” since the subcommittee had not yet even voted on the charges against Gingrich. Nevertheless, they talked about how to handle inevitable Democratic attacks, how to time the day’s events with newspapers, news agencies and the evening television news in mind, and - above all - how to avoid making all that look as if Gingrich was pulling the strings.
In the Dec. 21 conversation, Gingrich’s lawyer, Ed Bethune, said, “It is very important for me to be able to say to the special counsel and if necessary to the committee members that we - and by that I mean the other attorney, Randy Evans, and I, and Newt - have done everything in our power to try to stop all things that might be construed in any way as an orchestration attempt by Newt Gingrich.”
Gingrich, Bethune and the others discussed their tactics in a conference telephone call, a transcript of which was made available by the Democratic congressman, who is hostile to Gingrich. The Democrat insisted that he not be identified further.
The congressman said the tape had been given to him Wednesday by a couple who said they were from North Florida. He quoted them as saying it had been recorded off a radio scanner, suggesting that one participant was using a cellular telephone. They said it was recorded about 9:45 a.m. Dec. 21.
The tape, in which the voices of Gingrich and other Republican leaders are clearly recognizable, was plainly a recording of a conversation that took place before the subcommittee released its charges and Gingrich’s admissions.
The call capped a week of elaborate plea-bargaining over the framing of the charges - and Gingrich’s admission - that the speaker had brought discredit on the House by giving untrue information to the Ethics Committee and by failing to get proper legal advice about the way he used money from tax-exempt foundations for a college course and televised town meetings with political overtones.
Gingrich’s admission of guilt avoided a full-scale trial in which the details would have been televised nationally. In return, the committee’s special counsel, James M. Cole, insisted on a promise that the speaker would not use his allies to mount a counterattack against the subcommittee’s case, since its rules forbade Cole and members from answering such attacks.
The tone of the conversation was optimistic. The speaker and the other leaders believed that a coordinated response could enable them to limit political fallout.
And the talk, one of many that day, ended on a light note. After the basic outlines of the statement the leaders would issue had been agreed on, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, had another suggestion for how Gingrich could handle the menacing accusation that he had deliberately lied to the committee: “I am not sure you are ready for this, but you could quote Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.”
Gingrich asked, “Which one is that?”
Armey warbled: “I did not mean to deceive you. I never intended to push or shove. I just wish you was someone that I love.”
Thursday, Lauren Maddox, a spokeswoman for Gingrich, defended the speaker’s role. She said: “Newt has always had the right to run for speaker and campaign. Any statement he made was in no way undermining the work of the committee.”
She added: “There was a specific agreement between Newt’s lawyers and the special counsel that Newt could brief the leadership. And it was always understood that in turn, the leadership could respond in any way they thought was appropriate.”
In the December conversation, Bethune said in a couple of hours, once the subcommittee announced its actions, “it would also be a time when we are authorized to have the conversation that we are having now, a little prematurely. But I don’t think it would be troubling to anyone that we are a little ahead of the gun.”
Cole would not comment Thursday, but the conversation itself suggested that the situation at the time seemed more complicated than Maddox contended.