House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed to face an unprecedented reprimand from his colleagues and pay $300,000 in additional sanctions after the House ethics sub-committee concluded that Gingrich’s use of tax-deductible money for political purposes represented either “intentional or … reckless” disregard of House rules.
After a week of bitter, partisan disagreement, the full ethics committee Friday finally released the report of special counsel James M. Cole outlining the case against Gingrich, a toughly worded document in which Cole said he had concluded that Gingrich had violated federal tax law and had lied to the ethics panel in an effort to force the committee to dismiss the complaint against him.
The report, whose findings were aired in a Capitol Hill hearing that began at mid-afternoon Friday and continued into the night, set the stage for a resolution of the investigation into Gingrich’s actions. The probe has lasted for nearly two years and in its final days has split the House into warring partisan camps.
If the full House accepts the recommendation of the ethics panel, Gingrich would become the first speaker in history to be reprimanded for his conduct, and would begin his second term as speaker politically weakened and personally diminished.
Cole told the panel in the televised hearing that the subcommittee of two Republicans and two Democrats was reluctant to accept his conclusions that Gingrich had broken federal tax law and had lied on more than one occasion during the inquiry. But he said they agreed that what Gingrich did was either “reckless” or “intentional,” adding, “Neither choice reflects creditably on the House of Representatives.”
Moments after Cole spoke, Gingrich’s lawyer, J. Randolph Evans, said Gingrich had agreed to the proposed punishment in the case. “The speaker himself has apologized to the subcommittee, to the House and to the American people,” he said.
Cole disclosed that in its original statement of alleged violations, the subcommittee had charged Gingrich with three counts of violating House rules, two for having failed to seek proper legal advice on the tax laws and one for providing the committee with inaccurate information.
But Cole said committee members were anxious to bring the ethics case to a swift conclusion without a lengthy disciplinary hearing, which he said could have “put the House in some turmoil for up to six months.” So the members encouraged him to enter into negotiations with Gingrich and his lawyers.
As a result of those negotiations, completed on Dec. 20, the three counts were combined into a single count of engaging “in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives.” In return, Gingrich agreed to admit to the violations, face a reprimand and, in an unprecedented move, reimburse the committee $300,000 to cover some of the costs of the lengthy investigation.
Cole also said Friday that he and the subcommittee believe that news reports indicate Gingrich violated a provision of the agreement that barred “having surrogates sent out to comment on the matter.” But the panel decided against taking any action in the interest of a speedy resolution of the case.
In addition, the panel has not yet resolved complaints that Gingrich received improper gifts, contributions and support from GOPAC, a political action committee he once headed, and the IRS is probing the tax issues in his case.
Gingrich made no statement Friday about the case. He spoke to the Republican National Committee meeting, where he received a standing ovation, but did not mention the ethics investigation.
His only public statement came last month, when he acknowledged he brought discredit to the House by failing to ensure that the financing of various projects would not violate federal tax law and by giving the ethics committee false information. He said the violations where not intentional.
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., chairman of the ethics panel, called the proposed penalty against Gingrich “tough and unprecedented.” She said: “The speaker of the House must be held to the highest ethical standards. No one is above the rules of the House.”
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the top Democrat on the investigative subcommittee that brought the charges against the speaker, said: “It isn’t a very pleasant matter to sit in judgment … but it must be done … This is a sad day.”
The hearing seemed almost an anticlimax compared with the week of turmoil that led up to it. Last week, the committee agreed to a full week of televised hearings, only to see that proposal scuttled in partisan bickering, made more acrimonious by the disclosure of a taped telephone conversation that appeared to show Gingrich breaking his agreement with the ethics panel.
The controversy over the tape, which gave Republicans ammunition that Democrats were waging a partisan vendetta against the speaker, resulted in a decision by Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the top Democrat on the full ethics committee, to withdraw from the case after he was implicated in leaking the tape to three newspaper reporters.