Newt Gingrich's troubles over ethics charges are about to come to a head.
At issue: Whether he will be tried before the full ethics committee of the House of Representatives. A subcommittee is expected to make a recommendation between now and Jan. 7.
The four-person subcommittee functions as a grand jury and decides whether to send an indictment to the full committee, which would then function as judge and jury in a trial. A subcommittee report calling for a trial could affect Mr. Gingrich's reelection as Speaker if enough Republicans withhold their votes when the House organizes in January.
"The grand jury are four very capable members who in my judgment will be fair," Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a Gingrich supporter, told reporters at a Monitor breakfast.
The issue evokes strong partisan feelings and could tie the entire legislative agenda up in knots. A quarrel broke out last week over whether seven of the 10 full committee members should be replaced Jan. 7 in accord with a House rule that committee members can serve only three two-year terms. The matter is now under discussion between Republican majority leader Dick Armey of Texas and Democratic minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Democrats want to keep all the committee members on until the Gingrich matter is resolved, while Mr. Armey has proposed extending the four subcommittee members.
The Speaker has been the subject of dozens of ethics complaints during his two-year tenure. On Dec. 6, 1995, the ethics committee, five Republicans and five Democrats, dismissed most of the allegations. But it found that Gingrich had improperly used an unpaid, volunteer, political adviser, Joe Gaylord, to interview potential employees. It concluded that before he was Speaker, Gingrich improperly publicized on the House floor an 800 number for ordering tapes of his university course, "Renewing American Civilization," at Kennesaw State College in Georgia.
The committee also held that in 1990 Gingrich improperly publicized a partisan political event from the House floor. It criticized the Speaker's book deal with press magnate Rupert Murdoch, which originally called for a $4.5 million advance (later lowered to $1), for creating "the impression of exploiting one's office for personal gain." Members recommended no action against the Speaker, but called for clarification of the House limitations on outside income to include book royalties.
More seriously, however, the committee created the four-member subcommittee to examine whether the funding of Gingrich's college course, later moved to the private Reinhardt College, violated laws regarding tax-exempt organizations. Such organizations are not allowed to engage in political activity. The committee also hired special counsel James Cole.
The course, which Gingrich taught from 1993 through March 1995, was transmitted across the country using expensive satellite feeds paid for by charitable donations. Many came from supporters of GOPAC, the political action committee Gingrich used to help engineer the Republican election victory and takeover of Congress in 1994. Gingrich opponents, led by Democratic whip David Bonior, claim that the course was a political activity, while Gingrich insists it was educational.
On Sept. 26, the subcommittee announced that it was expanding the preliminary inquiry to include several additional areas:
*Whether Gingrich had given the committee during its investigation "accurate, reliable and complete information" about the college course, GOPAC's relationship to it, and its funding by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
*Whether Gingrich's relationship with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, set up to fund the course, broke House rules or laws regarding tax-exempt organizations.
*Whether Gingrich violated House rules prohibiting "unofficial office accounts" to pay for official activities through his use of the personnel and facilities of the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
*Whether Gingrich's activities on behalf of the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, set up by Republicans to help inner-city youths, violated its tax-exempt status, or whether it violated its status with Gingrich's knowledge and approval.
The committee is also considering four counts of a complaint filed Jan. 31 by Mr. Bonior and others, including allegations that GOPAC gave Gingrich a prohibited gift of $250,000; that he illegally received $250,000 from GOPAC for campaign purposes; that GOPAC funneled campaign contributions to him; and that he had engaged in "conduct unbecoming a member of the House." The committee dismissed bribery allegations in the complaint.
Gingrich has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. Many see the charges as "payback" for Gingrich's attacks on then-Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, which led to Mr. Wright's resignation in 1989.