Recorded in a car during a shopping trip, a tape of House Speaker Newt Gingrich discussing his ethics case made its way from Florida to the House Ethics Committee like a classified document.
It was delivered to a congresswoman’s Florida office. Mailed in a sealed envelope to her Washington office. Handed back to the people who had taped it. Carried by that couple to the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, with a cover letter suggesting they had legal immunity.
Eventually, it wound up in the hands of the press, and The New York Times ran a transcript.
Now the tape is part of an ethics investigation caught up in bitter partisan fighting.
The committee Democrat who received it has stepped aside from the Gingrich case. A Republican who was itching to get off the panel bowed out, too, to maintain the committee’s political balance.
The FBI has begun a criminal investigation. And Republicans have used the tape to escalate their attacks against Democrats.
The tape has diverted attention from Gingrich’s admitted ethical misdeeds, but that case is moving toward a conclusion. Outside counsel James M. Cole is to finish his report today. The committee is to vote Tuesday on Gingrich’s punishment.
Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, said Wednesday he will not participate further in the Gingrich case. He stepped down after the panel’s ranking Democrat, Jim McDermott of Washington, said he would not participate in the case. That leaves the panel with four members from each party.
John and Alice Martin of Fort White, Fla., heard the telephone conversation on the Radio Shack scanner in their car while on a Christmas shopping trip. Once they realized the conversation they were picking up was Gingrich discussing the Republican response to his admitted ethics violations, they recorded it on a hand-held machine.
Then they called Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., and brought the tape to her Gainesville office on Jan. 2. There, the tape was placed in a sealed envelope, wrapped in packing tape and mailed to her Washington office.
According to House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan, Thurman then asked members of Bonior’s staff for advice. They recommended that her constituents forward the tape to appropriate law enforcement agencies or other officials, including the Ethics Committee.
The Martins, meanwhile, went to Washington, visited Thurman’s office and picked up the package. It was still sealed.
The Martins had a cover letter to go with the tape. Addressed to McDermott, it said, in part: “We live in the 5th Congressional District (of Florida) and attempted to give the tape to Rep. Karen Thurman. We were advised by her to turn the tape directly over to you. We also understand that we will be granted immunity.”
The tape then was delivered to McDermott at the Ethics Committee.
Federal law prohibits intentional interception of calls from cellular telephones and also the dissemination of any such recording - if the person transmitting it knew the recording was illegal.
James F. Rogers, a Washington attorney specializing in communications law, said that if McDermott simply had given the tape to the Ethics Committee, “a court would be hard-pressed” to find that illegal.
But McDermott’s role is unclear. He delivered it to the committee Monday night, but the chairwoman, Rep. Nancy Johnson, directed that it go directly to the criminal division of the Justice Department.
By that time, a partial transcript had been published in the New York Times.
McDermott, in recusing himself from the investigation, said Johnson committed a grave error by not treating the tape as evidence. He said the conversation between Gingrich and GOP leaders breached an agreement barring the speaker from orchestrating a response to his ethical wrongdoing.
The Ethics Committee’s chief counsel, Theodore Van Der Meid, said that when the tape was brought to the committee, he asked Justice Department attorneys if they wanted it.
“They were interested,” he said.