Congress Ethics Process Careens to a Conclusion

Although the House of Representatives ethics process is careening nearly out of control, the general outline of what will happen in the case of Speaker Newt Gingrich is clear.

Sometime today special counsel James Cole is scheduled to issue his final report on Mr. Gingrich's admitted ethics violations. What is left of the committee will then hold some kind of public hearing, possibly tomorrow or even lasting all weekend, after which it will recommend a punishment for the Speaker - if members can agree.

Finally, the full House will vote Jan. 21 on a sanction, probably a reprimand, although some Republicans argue for a milder letter of reproval. In either case, it appears Gingrich will stay on as Speaker unless something damaging comes out in the counsel's report or the committee hearings.

"It's going to depend on (a) Cole's report and (b) whether this is information the public and press don't already have in hand," says Bill Frenzel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "If the report is all the counsel and subcommittee know, the whole thing blows over."

Just as partisan trench warfare has marked each phase of the Gingrich investigation, however, observers expect the ethics committee's "sentencing hearing" will be no exception. They expect a dispute over the counsel's report regardless of its content.

"Something new will come out," says political scientist Stephen Hess, also a Brookings fellow. "The Democrats will find some semicolon, comma, line, or word that shows what they wanted it to show."

Reprimand expected

Unless the report and hearings reveal something that sways more than the nine Republicans who did not vote for Gingrich for Speaker last week, however, the GOP interpretation of the investigation's results will prevail on the floor. "There are precedents," Mr. Frenzel says. "It's the kind of stuff that has not gotten more than a reprimand in the past."

Gingrich admitted to investigating subcommittee findings that he failed to ensure that the funding of his college course by tax-exempt foundations did not violate the tax code and that he gave the subcommittee incorrect and conflicting information about the relationship of GOPAC, his political action committee, to the course.

The ethics process has nearly been derailed as Democrats appeared to overplay their hand. First, committee Democrats complained about a week-long schedule of hearings they had helped negotiate, pointing out that it called for Cole's final report to be finished Feb. 4, two weeks after the floor vote. That gave committee chairman Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut an opening to scrap the schedule, including hearings that were to start last Monday, and order Cole to submit the report today.

That was followed by publication in The New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution of a tape-recorded conversation involving the Speaker, his lawyer, and the House GOP leadership. In the Dec. 21 phone call, Gingrich and the others discussed how to react to the investigating subcommittee findings to be released that day, while Gingrich's lawyer explained what the Speaker could and could not say as part of the agreement worked out with the subcommittee.

The Times said a Florida couple recorded the phone call from a scanner that picked up a participant's cell phone. Outraged Republicans demanded a Justice Department investigation. Intercepting telephone calls without authorization and knowingly distributing the contents of illegally intercepted calls are federal offenses. FBI director Louis Freeh Tuesday announced an inquiry into the matter.

New ethics target

After originally taking the tape to their congresswoman, Rep. Karen Thurman, the Florida couple, Democratic activists John and Alice Martin, say they passed the tape to Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington. That news sent Republicans, who regard Mr. McDermott as the Speaker's primary antagonist on the ethics committee, into a frenzy. Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York, a GOP leader, demanded the Democratic leadership undertake a full investigation of who knew about the tape and why it was not turned over to law-enforcement authorities. Reports that House minority whip David Bonior of Michigan, leader of the attack on Gingrich, knew of the tape before its publication are sure to fuel the fire.

McDermott has said he would recuse himself from further consideration of the Gingrich case. "I can no longer participate in this charade," he said, charging that chairman Johnson had perverted the ethics process and that complaints against Democrats had been used to reduce sanctions against Gingrich. Johnson retorted that "I will not allow angry partisanship to divert the committee from its job of providing the public and the Congress with complete information in the Gingrich case."

Democratic caucus leader Vic Fazio of California charged that Johnson "has now made herself a key component of an orchestrated coverup of Speaker Gingrich's admitted violations of House rules."

House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, speaking at a Monitor breakfast yesterday, denied Democratic accusations that Johnson has coordinated with the GOP leadership. "The committed has been very good at preserving their integrity," Mr. Armey said. "That's the kind of assertion that comes out of the depth of the throes of despair that 'we didn't get Newt.'"

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