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Independent Counsel for Gingrich Book : The Speaker met privately with Murdoch before the contract was negotiated.

<i> Robert Scheer is a former Times national correspondent</i>

Live by the sword. How sweet a victory it must have been when Newt Gingrich ran former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) out of town because he made $55,000 off the bulk sale of his book to lobbyists. The trick was turned by Gingrich’s insistence that an independent counsel be appointed. As Gingrich put it back in 1988:

“The rules normally applied by the Ethics Committee to an investigation of a typical member are insufficient in an investigation of the Speaker of the House, a position which is third in line of succession to the Presidency and the second most powerful elected position in America. Clearly this investigation has to meet a higher standard of public accountability and integrity.” Gingrich’s words must haunt him now, when his own far more lucrative and questionable book deal has been added to complaints filed with the House Ethics Committee alleging his improper use of political-action-committee and nonprofit-foundation money.

Gingrich has attempted to squiggle out of the book controversy by giving up the $4.5-million advance from HarperCollins, the book publishing company owned by Rupert Murdoch. But that means Gingrich’s book fortunes are more dependent than before on marketing efforts by Murdoch’s company.

Murdoch, meanwhile, stands to make billions from a Congress that Gingrich controls. There are bills in both houses that would benefit his Australian-based company by repealing the law limiting foreign ownership of U.S. television stations to 25%. It is Speaker Gingrich who will determine whether those bills get brought up in the House or die in committee.

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Yet when Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.) said no more than that on the floor of the House last week, you would have thought that she had called Gingrich’s mother the “b word.” The congresswoman’s words were stricken from the record and she was abruptly silenced by Gingrich’s flunkies.

Nice try at burying the skunk, but the odor keeps oozing out.

It’s just too hard to believe that Gingrich never made inquiries about who owns a company that offered him $4.5 million for two collections of lectures and readings. C’mon, he had met secretly with Murdoch--Mr. Multinational himself, a man who built his media empire by hustling legislators on three continents--Nov. 28, three days before he began negotiating the book contract. But when the book deal was announced in December, Gingrich’s press spokesman, Tony Blankley, told reporters he didn’t know whether his boss had ever met with Murdoch. Why didn’t Gingrich step forward then and admit to the meeting if there was nothing to hide? Why was it only after the New York Daily News broke the story that he confessed?

The truth leaked out when a Murdoch spokesman the next day conceded that an NBC lawsuit against the Murdoch-owned Fox network, based on the foreign-ownership issue, was discussed. And two days later, we learned from Murdoch’s Washington lobbyist, Preston Padden, who was also at the meeting, that this was not a chance courtesy call but rather was planned to counter NBC’s lobbying.

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This week, Gingrich was dissembling once again: “They said something to me about, ‘We are in this big fight with NBC,’ and I said fine. I mean, I don’t care. I never get involved in individual cases like that.”

Not true. The Washington publication Roll Call revealed that Gingrich recently wrote a strongly worded letter encouraging the Food and Drug Administration to quickly approve a product manufactured exclusively by a firm called Direct Access Diagnostics. The firm, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, quickly made a contribution to the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which helps underwrite Gingrich’s lectures on cable television. That’s the same tax-exempt foundation cited in the complaint before the House Ethics Committee. The nonprofit foundation’s president, Jeffrey Eisenach, has said that he initiated the book deal with Murdoch’s company.

The truth about the finagling of Newt Inc. will emerge only after the appointment of an independent counsel, a suggestion strongly endorsed by Richard Phelan, who was special counsel in the Wright investigation.

A year ago, when the White House was resisting the appointment of a special counsel on Whitewater, Gingrich told ABC: “People are going to suspect that there is a reason they don’t want an independent counsel. If they’re innocent, why don’t they go ahead and agree to an independent to clear their name?”

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Et tu, Newtie.


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