The House Ethics Committee formally began its investigation of influence peddling and other alleged misconduct by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Thursday as a new complaint charged that he had improperly accepted as much as $200,000 in free cable TV time to broadcast a college course he teaches.
Meeting under the strictest secrecy ever imposed on its members, the five Republicans and five Democrats who make up the ethics panel convened behind closed doors to look into the complex matrix of corporate donors, political action committees and academic organizations that Gingrich has assembled over the years.
But as the Ethics Committee launched its long-awaited investigation, several House Democrats and Common Cause, the ethics watchdog group whose pressure helped to bring about the resignation of former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), raised a new charge.
They criticized Gingrich for accepting 20 hours of free broadcast time for his course from Jones Intercable, a cable network owned by Glenn R. Jones, the nation’s seventh-largest cable operator. Jones, a major contributor to GOP causes, has significant financial interests at stake in telecommunications legislation now before Congress.
Estimating the value of the cable time at between $150,000 and $200,000, three liberal Democrats filed a complaint with the Ethics Committee alleging that Gingrich had violated House rules barring members from receiving gifts valued at more than $250 from any one source over a one-year period, as well as rules prohibiting any gifts from those seeking to influence legislation.
“The Speaker solicited and/or accepted a gift, free cable time, valued at $150,000 to $200,000 from an individual with a substantial interest in legislation before Congress,” charged the complaint filed by Reps. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Harry A. Johnston of Florida.
As on previous occasions when he has angrily dismissed an ethics complaint without addressing its substance, Gingrich charged that the latest allegation is part of a Democratic effort to smear him.
“The Democratic leadership and their most ideological, left-wing members seem to be desperately going off the deep end. . . . The charges they make I’m not going to dignify. I think it’s a pathetic effort to avoid dealing with real issues,” he told reporters.
The Ethics Committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, focused its initial attention on earlier complaints, including allegations about Gingrich’s controversial book deal with HarperCollins Publishers Inc., his political fund-raising committee, GOPAC, and the channels through which financial support was sought for Renewing American Civilization, the college course he teaches at Georgia’s Reinhardt College.
Times staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story.