The most serious charge examined by the Ethics Committee was an allegation that Gingrich intentionally provided inaccurate and unreliable information in two letters to the panel in an attempt to win a quick dismissal of the ethics case.
When the subcommittee’s investigation exposed the false statements, Gingrich blamed his lawyer and his staff.
“The ball appears to have been dropped between my staff and my counsel,” Gingrich told the investigation subcommittee. “I erroneously, it turns out, relied on others to verify the accuracy of the statements and responses.”
Once the subcommittee determined the letters were unreliable and inaccurate, the investigation focused on a new question – whether Gingrich’s involvement in the submission was intentional or just reckless.
Gingrich’s lawyer prepared the letters. The lawyer told the committee Gingrich reviewed and approved the content of both letters before they were sent. Gingrich disputed this.
Some committee members were skeptical. “Both letters were efforts by Mr. Gingrich to have the committee dismiss the complaints without further inquiry,” the Ethics Committee report says.
It adds: “Of all the people involved in drafting, reviewing, or submitting the letters, the only person who had first-hand knowledge of the facts contained within them … was Mr. Gingrich.”
The committee's finding
Ultimately, the committee concluded that Gingrich’s actions fell somewhere between “reckless” and “intentional.”
“Neither choice reflects creditably on the House,” the report says.
“The violation does not represent only a single instance of reckless conduct,” it adds. “Rather, over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities.”
In testimony to the subcommittee, Gingrich called the submission of inaccurate information “an inadvertent and embarrassing breakdown.” He said: “At no time did I intend to mislead the committee or in any way be less than forthright.”
The Ethics Committee ultimately avoided a decision on whether his actions were intentional. Instead, Gingrich and the committee negotiated the equivalent of a plea deal.
The arrangement allowed Gingrich to avoid having to endure a multi-day, nationally-televised trial examining the facts of each of three charges.
Gingrich agreed to a “reprimand” and to pay $300,000 if the committee would consolidate the three pending charges into one and remove the word “knew” from the charge related to the submission of false information. Under the Dec. 21, 1996, agreement, the charge read simply that Gingrich “should have known” his submitted information was inaccurate.
This issue was important to Gingrich’s political future. In December 1996, he was only weeks away from an anticipated vote on who would serve as speaker in the next Congress. The negotiated deal helped insulate Gingrich from accusations that he intentionally tried to deceive the committee.
Gingrich was reelected speaker on Jan. 7, 1997, receiving 216 votes.
In his Dec. 21, 1996, admission that he violated House rules, Gingrich again placed the blame on his staff and lawyer for the inaccurate and unreliable submissions.
He said he did not manage the submission of information on his behalf intensely enough. “In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee,” Gingrich said, “but I did not intend to mislead the committee.”