Asserting that ethical problems are gathering over House Speaker Newt Gingrich's head like storm clouds, Democrats renewed their calls Thursday for appointment of an outside counsel to investigate the Georgia Republican's multimillion-dollar book deal.
Stepping up the Democratic attack on Gingrich, Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) said that an independent investigation also is needed to look into the possibility that campaign finance disclosure laws were violated by Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC.
"Everybody else has to reveal who contributes to their campaigns and how they spend their money . . . (but) he's getting a pass on it," Bonior said. "Newt has to come clean and open his books."
Democrats have questioned Gingrich's book deal with a publisher whose owner has financial interests that could be affected by legislation in Congress.
Although Gingrich moved quickly last week to defuse criticism by agreeing to give up a $4.5-million advance from publisher HarperCollins, the controversy was rekindled by reports that the Speaker had met privately after the Nov. 8 election with HarperCollins owner Rupert Murdoch, a media magnate involved in several other ventures that are under federal scrutiny.
Gingrich's office confirmed the meeting, which the Speaker had not disclosed before, but described it as a "routine courtesy call" by Murdoch at which the book deal was never mentioned.
Interviewed later on CNN, Gingrich said he was unaware that Murdoch even owned HarperCollins until Bonior made an issue of it.
The Democrats, however, said that the timing of the meeting raised serious questions about its propriety. "The American people have a right to know what kind of deals Newt Gingrich is making," Bonior said.
When the book deal was announced, it raised eyebrows even among Gingrich's fellow Republicans because the unusually large size of the advance gave rise to questions about whether Gingrich was using his new position for personal profit.
"This is not (popular author) Danielle Steele we're talking about but Newt Gingrich and the fact that he has never written a successful book before," Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday. "The whole arrangement is highly suspect."
The extraordinary size of the advance drew further criticism from Democrats because of Murdoch's interest in telecommunications legislation pending before Congress.
Although he is now a U.S. citizen, the Australian-born Murdoch is embroiled in a dispute involving charges that his ownership of the Fox television network violates a U.S. rule against foreign ownership of American television stations--a restriction that some Republicans have criticized and want to repeal.
Responding to the latest suggestions of impropriety, a Murdoch spokesman in New York said that the meeting with Gingrich occurred in the context of the media tycoon's frequent discussions with members of Congress over "issues involving the entertainment industry." However, he added that he and Gingrich did not discuss the book deal or "any pending legislation affecting Fox."