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Newt's Day Of Deliverance

But an intercepted cellular call gives him and the Democrats more ethical problems

By George J. Church

(TIME, January 20) -- The saga of Newt Gingrich's ethics suddenly resembles a brawl between blindfolded boxers who flail away so wildly that each lands a haymaker on his own jaw. About the only certainty is that Gingrich's narrow re-election as Speaker of the House last Tuesday was not the end of it.

The Democrats' war on Gingrich took a dubious turn last week when they rolled out a new weapon: electronic eavesdropping. First, the history: on Dec. 21, Gingrich gave the House ethics committee a statement admitting he had given it wrong information--inadvertently, he said. He agreed not to launch a G.O.P. spin campaign to refute the charges. But then he appeared at least to bend that promise in a conference call with G.O.P. leaders, when he strategized about the content and timing of the statements they would put out. Congressman John Boehner joined in by cell phone from Florida; a scanner picked up the chat, and it was recorded by a local couple. On Friday excerpts appeared in the New York Times--leaked, said the Times, by a Democratic Congressman who got it from the couple.

Newt Gingrich

But the next twist comes with the identity of the Congressman; Republican leadership sources tell TIME they strongly suspect Jim McDermott, ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. A committee source, interviewed by TIME, claims to have overheard McDermott talking to a Florida couple, who insisted on giving him a package in person. House Republican leaders say they have learned that McDermott discussed the conference call with special counsel James Cole before any news of the call appeared in public. They insisted that the call had not violated any deal and quickly went on the offensive, charging that intentionally intercepting and taping private phone conversations, or circulating tapes or transcripts of them, are illegal. And for a member of the ethics committee to engage in such chicanery amid a pending investigation, they said, would be especially unsavory. McDermott, through a spokesman, declined TIME's request for comment.

Gingrich's fate led to partisan bloodletting. After 14 hours of wrangling, the committee thought it had agreed on how to proceed: five days of hearings, then a vote on Gingrich's punishment and then Cole's report. Both sides woke up horrified. Republicans hated the public hearings. And Democrats demanded that Cole's report precede any vote; O.K., said committee chairwoman Nancy Johnson, rearranging the schedule to leave perhaps a day for hearings--which must now compete on TV with Clinton's Inaugural. Says an aide to a top Democrat: "We screwed it up."

So, of course, did Gingrich with his conference call; and the Democrat who leaked the tape. The self-inflicted wounds are likely to reinforce the conviction among voters that "House ethics" (like "White House ethics") is a contradiction.

--Reported by James Carney and Tamala M. Edwards/Washington

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