He could have the money deducted from his congressional paycheck. He could write off the whole matter as just one more political expense. He could set up a legal defense fund: 1-800-AIDNEWT, perhaps.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has a range of options as he considers how he will pay the $300,000 penalty levied against him by the House this week. While his lawyer searches for legal precedents, his colleagues are splitting into warring factions over which checkbook - personal or political - Gingrich ought to pull out when he writes the check.
Besides personal and campaign money, Gingrich could also set up a legal defense fund or use money from his political action committee. Gingrich’s attorney, Randy Evans, said he was also mulling two other options, which he would not disclose.
“All options are open,” Evans said. “We haven’t made a decision. We’re going to use a standard - what is legal, ethical and appropriate under the circumstances.”
Whether the speaker is empowered to use campaign money is up to the five-member Federal Elections Commission. As of Wednesday, the FEC had received no request for an opinion from Gingrich and was not yet looking into the matter.
“This is uncharted territory because we don’t have any decisions by the FEC on the point,” said Kenneth Gross, the FEC’s former head of enforcement.
Evans, however, said it is “pretty clear” that his client could tap his campaign fund.
Even if that course turns out to be legal, however, the political fallout could be severe. Democrats say that tapping into political funds would send the message that Gingrich was not personally responsible for his actions.
“If he uses political funds, he will be doing what got him into trouble - walking right on the line,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., the top-ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee. “It would be damaging to the institution. It would show that he hasn’t learned anything from all this.”
Republicans, however, argued that forcing a member of Congress to pull out his own wallet to settle the financial penalty would be a further barrier to public office for ordinary citizens.
“What does it do for the ability of middle-class citizens to serve in the Congress of the United States?” asked Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla.
Republicans were not of one mind, however. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said paying the penalty out of campaign funds or setting up a legal defense fund would raise “red flags” among the public. “The whole notion of having a new legal defense fund at this end of Pennsylvania Avenue, it reeks of Washington hypocrisy,” Sanford said.
The Ethics Committee remained silent on how Gingrich ought to pay the money or even when the $300,000 is due, although Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., who chairs the committee, said Gingrich ought to pay at least some of the money from his own pocket.
“We didn’t want to micromanage this,” Cardin said. “All we said was that the money had to come from a legal and ethical source.”