Paying The Price Talk about ethics charges! Breaking the rules will cost Newt Gingrich $300,000. By Richard Lacayo/TIME
Newt's Day Of Deliverance But an intercepted cellular call gives him and the Democrats more ethical problems. By George J. Church/TIME
Newt's Influence Slips Away Gingrich worked the phone hard to save his job, but no matter what the outcome of the vote for Speaker, his influence is already greatly diminished. By Richard Lacayo/TIME
House Speaker Newt Gingrich agreed on Dec. 21 to accept the House ethics investigative subcommittee's finding that he should have sought legal advice on the propriety of using tax-deductible donations to fund two college courses that he taught. He also admitted to providing inaccurate information to the ethics committee in two instances.
Just one month later, on Jan. 21, the full House voted 395-28 to approve the House ethics committee's punishment of a reprimand plus a $300,000 penalty. Though it allowed him to hold onto his powerful post, the outcome marked the first time a sitting speaker has been disciplined by the House.
It was all a stunning turn of events considering that, for more than two years, Gingrich steadfastly maintained that the numerous ethics complaints -- more than 70 -- launched against him by Democrats amounted to a cynical desire for revenge. It was revenge, the speaker said, for his successful crusade against former House Speaker Jim Wright, whose ethics transgressions eventually led to his resignation in 1989.
In fact, there's probably some truth to Gingrich's revenge theory. Though Gingrich has faced a steady torrent of complaints since assuming the speakership in 1994, all but two have been dismissed by the House ethics committee.
But on Dec. 6, 1995, the ethics committee agreed to appoint an outside counsel to investigate whether two college courses Gingrich taught, which he financed with tax deductible donations, had been used to further the partisan goals of GOPAC, a political action committee founded by Gingrich. Not to worry, the speaker told supporters -- the issue was simply a "technical" matter. But some 12 months later, that so-called technicality had him in hot water.
Currently, no clear consensus has emerged concerning the gravity of Gingrich's tax problems. While the tax attorney retained by the ethics committee believes tax laws were violated, an expert hired by Gingrich does not.
Both agreed, however, that they would have advised the speaker against funding his courses -- which the ethics report concludes were designed to further his political goals -- with tax-exempt dollars. Moreover, Gingrich was warned by attorneys as long ago as 1990 not to use tax exempt funds to finance his course.
Many viewed Gingrich's false statements to the ethics committee as his most serious problem. Two letters he provided to the ethics committee, dated Dec. 8, 1994, and March 27, 1995, respectively, denied GOPAC was connected with his college teaching. That's untrue. Gingrich's lawyer, Jan Baran, quit after being blamed for the error.
Was it an inadvertent accident or a knowing lie? The speaker and his allies say it was the former, while his critics are claiming it was the latter.
Despite loud calls for delay from House Democrats (and a few Republicans), Gingrich and GOP leaders kept to the original schedule, and the speaker squeaked out re-election Jan. 7 on a 216-205 vote, with Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) as his opponent. Six House members voted "present"; four voted for other members; and four didn't vote at all.
After ensuing weeks of fractious partisan wrangling, the ethics committee held an open hearing Jan. 17 during which independent counsel James Cole laid out his case. Six hours later, the committee went behind closed doors where members voted 7-1 in favor of the punishment.
Gingrich and his supporters no doubt hoped they could put the matter behind them with the House's Jan. 21 vote. The matter was kept alive, however, since the speaker took his time deciding how to pay the $300,000 penalty. After mulling over his options -- which included tapping into campaign funds and setting up a legal trust fund -- Gingrich made the surprising announcement that he would finance the penalty using a loan from former GOP candidate and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
The speaker likely will face new battles, as a determined band of House Democrats, led by Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), plans to press a still-remaining charge that Gingrich dipped into GOPAC funds for his personal use.
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