Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., stepped down from the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday, seeking to still the controversy over his role in the publication of a tape-recorded conversation involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But while McDermott was savaging Republicans for “the subversion of an independent, fair ethics process,” Louis Freeh, the FBI director, announced that the bureau was opening an investigation into “possible illegal telephone interception and the subsequent dissemination of the contents of the telephone call.”
The committee’s senior Democrat said nothing about the tape recording other than to denounce the committee chairwoman, Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., for unilaterally refusing to make it part of the committee’s records and for what he called a violation of House rules by sending the tape to the Justice Department without a vote of the House first.
“Rather than evaluate the evidence,” he wrote her, “and give it such weight as it is fairly entitled to receive, you, without committee or House approval, have jettisoned the evidence and willfully ignored its content. I regard that as a shameful act in conscious avoidance of the search for truth.”
Johnson issued a statement that did not address the accusation of a rules violation, and an aide said she would not comment on it. Johnson said: “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.”
John and Alice Martin, a Florida couple, said at a news conference Monday that they gave McDermott a tape recording last Wednesday that they recorded from a scanner on Dec. 21.
On Friday, The New York Times published a partial transcript of the conversation on the tape, in which Gingrich discussed how his allies should respond to his admission that day that he had brought discredit upon the House. Democrats said this showed he broke an agreement with the ethics committee not to orchestrate a counterattack.
Since the weekend, Republicans have accused McDermott of providing the tape to The Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and have demanded that the Justice Department prosecute him and that he resign from Congress or that ethics action be taken against him.
Charging that state and federal laws against wiretapping had been violated, Republicans sought to focus attention on the distribution of the tape and bury complaints that Johnson had broken House rules by unilaterally canceling public hearings the committee had voted to begin Monday. Republicans also said the tape proved Gingrich had kept, not broken, his word.
Democratic House aides said Tuesday night that McDermott’s announcement that he would recuse himself from the Gingrich case was the first step toward turning attention back to the issue of how Gingrich used tax-exempt funds for political purposes and gave untrue information to the ethics committee.
In a furious statement with his letter to Johnson, McDermott called the Republican approach to the Gingrich case a charade. He said committee Republicans had continually “delayed, stonewalled or obstructed sensible efforts to get at the whole truth.”
Just how his recusal will affect the committee’s remaining actions is not clear. Under its rules, it must be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Aides in both parties were saying that one likely plan would have Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who was appointed to the committee only last week, step aside so that four members from each party would meet to recommend punishment before the House votes on Jan. 21.
McDermott said his recusal would take effect once steps had been taken to insure an equal ratio of Republicans and Democrats.
But Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., speaking for the Republican leaders, angrily retorted, “The committee, not Jim McDermott, should set the conditions for his recusal.”
“I believe that McDermott has likely committed a felony crime,” Paxon said. “He should save his plea bargaining for the federal prosecutor.”