The House Ethics Committee on Friday named a veteran prosecutor and defense attorney specializing in white-collar crime cases to serve as special counsel to investigate whether House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) violated federal tax laws in raising money for a college course that he taught.
In announcing the appointment of James M. Cole, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), who chairs the ethics panel, said the committee believes that he "has the experience and integrity to serve the committee and the House well."
Colleagues who worked with Cole as a government prosecutor and defense attorney had difficulty in identifying any political leanings by Cole and praised his judgment and fairness.
From 1980 to 1992, Cole served first as a lawyer and then as deputy in the Justice Department's public integrity section, which handles the most politically sensitive cases. Cole successfully prosecuted a federal judge for bribery and a congressman for filing false statements on his financial disclosure forms during that time.
The committee voted Dec. 6 to retain an outside counsel to determine whether Gingrich broke federal tax laws in raising money for a college course that he taught at Reinhardt College in Waleska, Ga., beginning in 1993.
Gingrich's opponent in the last election, Georgia Democrat Ben Jones, filed the ethics complaint, asserting that the course amounted to a political recruitment program that improperly benefited from a federal tax-exempt status for education programs.
The course, "Renewing American Civilization," is available via television to about a dozen other colleges in addition to Reinhardt. It is also distributed to 26 million cable television subscribers through the Mind Extension University and to 10 million subscribers on the National Empowerment Network.
After becoming House Speaker last January, Gingrich continued lecturing for the course on Saturdays but ended his participation in the fall semester.
Earlier this year, Gingrich acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times that the course came close to the line between education and politics.
"Goes right up to the edge," Gingrich said. "What's the beef? Doesn't go over the edge. Doesn't break any law. Isn't wrong."
Cole, 43, is now a partner in the law firm of Bryan Cave, where Dan Schwartz, resident manager of the Washington office, described him as "an excellent lawyer" who specializes in white-collar criminal defense and internal audit work.
Gerald McDowell, former chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, said he respected Cole's fairness and judgment so much that he elevated him to deputy in charge of independent counsel matters.
McDowell, who now heads the department's fraud unit, could not identify Cole's politics, even though Cole worked for him during all but one of Cole's 13 years at the department.
"He sure didn't have any [political leanings] when he worked in public integrity," McDowell recalled. "That was almost a requirement."
Tom Buchanan, an attorney who is the brother of GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan and a self-described conservative, said he knows Cole from his criminal defense work and "I didn't find him to be political--one way or another."
He added that he is convinced that Cole "would never pursue somebody based on his own political leanings."
In addition to deciding to name a special counsel earlier this month, the ethics panel said Gingrich had created "the impression of exploiting one's office for personal gain" by signing a lucrative deal for his book "To Renew America." But the panel did not take any action against him on that issue.
In a related development Friday, the House voted to let members receive unlimited book royalties as long as the Ethics Committee clears their contracts and the lawmakers do not accept an advance.
The House rejected an Ethics Committee proposal that would have sharply limited income lawmakers could earn from books.
Gingrich gave up a $4.5-million advance on his book after Republicans as well as Democrats raised objections, and instead accepted only a $1 advance and the standard royalties of 15% on hardcover sales.