According to the Republican-led House ethics committee, the Speaker of the House of Representatives -- one of the most powerful and responsible positions in the land -- "engaged in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House" and provided "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable" information to the committee.
Now, you'd think that acting discreditably and lying to fellow lawmakers might disqualify a person from holding such a high office. But you'd be wrong. Tomorrow, the House of Representatives convenes for a vote on the matter and the odds are that Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., will retain the Speaker's chair.
Sure, Gingrich has "apologized." But it was one of those meaningless Washington-style apologies in which he admitted only that he had not sufficiently managed activities occurring on his behalf: "I was overconfident, and in some way, nao." Gingrich nao? The congressman from Georgia, who begins his tenth term tomorrow, is one of the most unnao politicians in town. He is also one of the most obstinate and unrepentant. His infractions are part of a documented pattern that should, but won't, give House Republicans pause.
The subject of the ethics committee's inquiry was a college course taught by Gingrich that was funded by tax-exempt contributions through a charitable foundation. The course was highly politicized: It called on activists to promote his brand of conservative Republicanism throughout the country, and it was connected to GOPAC, a political action committee at the heart of Gingrich's wide-ranging political operation. It is illegal to use a charitable foundation to support a political enterprise, and the committee cited him for not seeking adequate legal counsel on the matter and then misinforming the committee about GOPAC's relation to the course.
Gingrich's champions have spent the past weeks trivializing the affair as a minor slip involving arcane tax law, nothing that should prevent him from waving the Speaker's gavel. But they know better. They know that politicians are forever seeking new and imaginative ways to fund their activities, and they know that good legal advice is a sine quia non whenever a politico makes use of a foundation. For Gingrich to say he did not realize he needed legal assistance is beyond belief.
Nor is this an isolated incident.
- A year ago, the ethics committee noted that Gingrich had violated House rules by allowing a GOPAC official to act as his chief of staff. (Members of Congress cannot use unofficial resources for official purposes. Otherwise, you might have lobbyists running congressional offices.)
- At the same time, the committee declared that Gingrich had made "an improper solicitation" by promoting on the House floor an 800 number to buy videotapes of Gingrich's own lectures.
- Last fall, the committee cited Gingrich for allowing a telecommunications entrepreneur to use the Speaker's office to conduct personal business, noting the episode "demonstrates a continuing pattern of lax administration and poor judgment that has concerned this Committee in the past."
- In 1990, the committee criticized Gingrich for using congressional resources to advertise a Caribbean cruise sponsored by a private company and for failing to disclose certain real estate holdings on his financial disclosure statement.
- In late 1995, the committee rebuked him for creating the appearance that he was cashing in on his office when he signed a $4.5 million dollar book deal with HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man with many interests before Congress.
And the investigations are not done. The ethics committee reportedly is still examining whether GOPAC served as a slush fund for Gingrich. One GOPAC document describes the outfit as providing Gingrich with $250,000 in support a year, even though the purported reason for the group's existence is to help state and local Republican candidates. The IRS is scrutinizing the use of tax-exempt funds for the college course.
The paper trail created by these various investigations, including one conducted by the Federal Elections Commission, shows that Gingrich's GOPAC operated in a by-any-means-necessary atmosphere. At a GOPAC planning session in 1991, Gingrich wondered if the Amway corporation could fund a Republican effort to gain control of the House. According to the minutes of the meeting, when a lawyer noted that corporations are limited in their political activities, GOPAC decided "to find small corporations that are willing to take big risks." Including the risk of breaking campaign laws?
The transcript of a 1990 meeting suggests that some of GOPAC's own officials worried about the ethics of the group. One senior GOPAC official wondered if "GOPAC's got projects we don't even know about." In reply, another GOPAC official remarked, "Remember what Ollie North said Ronald Reagan: 'Mr. President, you don't want to know about this.' We are protecting Newt." Another GOPAC official chimes in: "That's right."
Gingrich is now browbeating and cajoling his party comrades. If his campaign succeeds and he manages to retain the Speaker's chair, he will still earn the dubious honor of being the first sitting House Speaker to be given a formal reprimand -- assuming that's the punishment the committee hands down in two weeks.
Given that Gingrich's rise to power was fueled by an overheated attack on the supposed corruption of Democrats, the episode won't improve the already tarnished reputation of House Republicans. Party loyalty and fear will have triumphed over even the most rudimentary sense of ethics.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation and a regular contributor to Salon. He can be reached at email@example.com
"Electronic Pearl Harbor"
There is a need for extraordinary action ... We have built our economy and our military on a technology foundation that we do not control and, at least at the fine detail level, we do not understand.
-- From a Defense Science Board task force report entitled, "Information Warfare -- Defense." (From: "Information-Warfare Defense Is Urged: Pentagon Panel Warns of 'Electronic Pearl Harbor,'" in Monday's Wall Street Journal