In a stinging rebuke, the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday found that Speaker Newt Gingrich had violated House rules by misusing official resources and voted unanimously to hire a special counsel to investigate allegations that he improperly used tax-deductible donations to finance his teaching of a college course.
The committee, after nearly a year of stalled secret negotiations, issued a strongly worded, three-page letter to the Georgia Republican criticizing his conduct.
The panel said that the speaker sought "to capitalize" on his office "for personal gain" by securing a lucrative book contract with a company owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. In the end, however, the committee dismissed that complaint and one other for which it officially found no wrongdoing.
As part of a compromise between the five Democrats and five Republicans on the committee, the panel decided not to punish Gingrich for actions challenged in the three complaints in which he was found to have broken House rules. The complaints charged that he deployed a GOP political consultant in the speaker's office and twice promoted political ventures on the House floor.
But even with those five complaints dismissed, the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the sixth complaint could lead to a broad review of Gingrich's conduct.
"This is just a start," said Ben Jones, a former Democratic lawmaker who ran against Gingrich in 1994 and filed the ethics complaint that is the basis for the appointment of the independent counsel. "There's a lot more here than there was in the [Jim] Wright case," he said, referring to the Democratic House speaker whom Gingrich helped force from office in 1989. "There's been a pattern of arrogant disregard of ethics for many years."
Gingrich waved off reporters seeking comment late Wednesday night. In a written statement, he tried to put the best face on the committee's decision, emphasizing that all but one of the charges were dismissed. He said that he was "pleased by the unanimous bipartisan action of the Ethics Committee and I am confident after the committee examines the remaining charge [that] it, too, will be dismissed."
"This has been a very painful process for my wife, my family and me personally," he added.
It is unclear whether the outside counsel will be given free rein to investigate the involvement of GOPAC, Gingrich's political committee, in financing the college course that he taught until this year. If the counsel is given a green light to explore all of GOPAC's records and dealings, including alleged favors in return for contributions, then Gingrich "has a serious, serious problem, one that could spell his political demise," Jones said.
Stanley M. Brand, who was counsel to the late Democratic Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. and represented Republicans as well as Democrats in ethics cases, said: "This leaves for investigation quite a bit of material."
The investigation by an outside counsel will lead to a decision either to file formal charges or dismiss the case. If the committee finds the speaker guilty of major violations, it would recommend punishment to the House, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion.
In any case, the hiring of a special counsel makes it virtually certain that the investigation will extend well into the 1996 election year--a prospect that aids the political strategy of Democratic leaders to use the speaker's personality and his conservative agenda as campaign issues.
House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who has led his party's attacks on Gingrich, said that the committee's decision "confirms the fact that the speaker is in deep ethical trouble."
"He should be setting an ethical standard for everyone else to follow, not testing the limits to see how far he can go," Bonior said.
Democrats had insisted on an outside counsel for months while Republicans sought to protect Gingrich from political damage. But GOP members came under added pressure to act last week by the disclosure that Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), chairwoman of the ethics panel, had served as a recruiter for GOPAC. The other four Republicans on the committee were also connected to Gingrich's organization.
After more than six hours of intense negotiations Wednesday, the Ethics Committee emerged with a compromise. The panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, took these actions:
* It voted, 10 to 0, to hire a special counsel to determine whether laws were violated with Gingrich's "knowledge and approval" to raise tax-deductible donations from political supporters to finance his Renewing American Civilization course at Kennesaw State College and Reinhart College in Georgia.
Before calling for an independent investigator, the committee was required to find "reason to believe" that Gingrich had committed a violation. The committee dismissed some allegations, included in the complaint, that Gingrich improperly took official action on behalf of contributors to the course.
* It concluded that Gingrich had violated House rules that prohibit the use of outside resources for official purposes by allowing Joseph Gaylord, a close political advisor paid with private funds, to work in the speaker's office last year. Gaylord's routine activities in House offices created "the appearance of the improper commingling of political and official resources," the panel said. "Such activities, if they are continuing, should cease immediately."
* It decided that Gingrich had misused the forum of the House floor by promoting his college course and reciting a toll-free number for ordering his lecture tapes. The committee said that the use of an 800 number was "an improper solicitation" and that the "House floor should not be used for commercial purposes."
* It found that Gingrich similarly violated House rules by using the floor to promote a nationwide town meeting sponsored by GOPAC.
* It determined that current House rules in fact permitted Gingrich to use his prestige as speaker to negotiate a $4.5-million book contract with HarperCollins to write "To Renew America." While concluding that Gingrich had not broken any rules, the committee said: "At a minimum, this creates the impression of exploiting one's office for personal gain. Such a perception is especially troubling when it pertains to the office of the speaker of the House."
Gingrich tore up the contract after a storm of public criticism and agreed to accept a $1 advance and standard 15% royalties for hardcover book sales and 7.5% for all paperbacks sold. The committee proposed legislation to subject book royalties to the annual limit of $20,040 on lawmakers' outside income.
* It dismissed a complaint alleging that Gingrich improperly accepted free services from a cable television company to broadcast his college course.
The Federal Election Commission has filed a lawsuit claiming that GOPAC violated federal campaign laws by spending more than $500,000 to help elect congressional candidates--including $250,000 to reelect Gingrich himself--in 1989-90, when it was prohibited from doing so.
The Ethics Committee has not yet received a formal complaint against Gingrich on GOPAC, which was run by the congressman until earlier this year.
"We recognize there are allegations out there against GOPAC," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the ethics panel. "We will act under committee rules when information comes to us."
McDermott added: "The important thing is the committee has worked for 11 months and has acted today in a unanimous fashion."
Times staff writers Alan C. Miller, Edwin Chen and Janet Hook contributed to this story.
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The Process and the Charges
The decision to appoint an outside counsel begins a long process that will result in a committee decision to either file formal charges or find no basis for charges. If charges are filed, Rep. Newt Gingrich would have a formal hearing to present a defense. Any major disciplinary action, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion, would be decided by the full House.
CHARGES TO BE INVESTIGATED
That a college course taught by the House speaker was political rather than education and hence should not have been financed with tax-deductible donations.
That Gingrich violated a rule that prohibits mingling official and unofficial resources. He allegedly did so by permitting a political adviser to work out of his Capitol office.
That Gingrich received a gift of free cable television time.
That a publisher's auction for his book, "To Renew America," was rigged. The auction drove up the advance Gingrich was offered to $4.5 million--an amount he later relinquished.
Sources: Congressional sources, Gingrich spokesman, Associated Press
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Ethics Committee (Southland Edition, A30)
The 10 members of the House ethics panel formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct:
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), chairwoman
Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.)
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.)
Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio)
Rep. Steven H. Schiff (R-N.M.)
Rep. Robert A. Borski (D-Pa.)
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.)
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.)
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco)
Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio)