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By The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 22, 1997

Ethics vote in: Gingrich keeps speaker's job, loses $300,000


The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat

House Speaker Newt Gingrich R-Ga, leaves his home for work on Capitol Hill yesterday. In the ethics dock after two years of controversy, Gingrich was fined a $300,000 penalty for admited rules violations.

WASHINGTON - In a day of dishonor for Newt Gingrich, the House voted for the first time in history to discipline its speaker for ethical misconduct. After months of partisan strife, the vote was a lopsided 395-28 to reprimand Gingrich and impose a $300,000 penalty.

''The penalty is tough and unprecedented,'' ethics committee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., said at the start of a 90-minute debate. Republicans and Democrats agreed that Gingrich had done wrong - indeed he had admitted it - but they clashed over the gravity of his misbehavior.

The partisanship that permeated the two-year investigation was undiminished yesterday despite the overwhelming vote. At one point, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., questioned whether Gingrich was ''ethically fit'' to continue as speaker.

However, most of the 435 seats on the floor - and most in the visitors' gallery - were empty.

Gingrich was attending meetings in his office and did not watch the debate, said his spokeswoman, Lauren Maddox. When admitting his guilt Dec. 21, Gingrich acknowledged in a written statement that he ''brought down on the people's house a controversy whic h could weaken the faith people have in their government.''

After two years of denials, Gingrich confessed to committee findings that he failed to ''seek and follow'' legal advice that would have warned him not to use tax-exempt projects to further partisan goals.

He also agreed that he should have known statements submitted under his name - denying his political organization's connection to the tax-exempt activities - were ''inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable.''

There were 196 Republicans, 198 Democrats and 1 independent who supported the penalty. Twenty-six Republicans and two Democrats were opposed and five members merely voted ''present.''

Still unannounced is how Gingrich will pay the $300,000. Some Republicans said he would risk further political uproar if he used campaign money or established a legal defense fund rather than using his own money.

A vote to reprimand a member is reserved for ''serious violations'' of the rules. The financial penalty, never before imposed, was to reimburse the ethics panel for costs associated with expanding the investigation after Gingrich submitted his misleading statements.

Gingrich's lawyer, J. Randolph Evans, and ethics committee special counsel James M. Cole watched from members' seats as Mrs. Johnson told the House, ''No one is above the rules.''

While Gingrich agreed in advance to the penalties, the lone dissenter in the committee's 7-1 vote last Friday to approve the sanctions, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argued the sanction was too harsh.

He and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said that in the past misconduct not found to be intentional was punished only by a letter of criticism.

''This speaker has had every detail of his life examined under a microscope and that microscope has exposed some flaws, some sloppiness or some things that should have been done better, but it has not exposed corruption,''' DeLay declared. ''Let's stop th is madness.''

The Democrats contended Gingrich violated tax law and intentionally misled the ethics committee - and they blamed the Republicans for downgrading a planned week of public hearings to a single day's proceeding.

The Republicans countered that a majority of the committee found neither tax law transgressions nor an intention to mislead. And, they contended, Democrats subjected GOP committee members to previously unheard of attacks in their election campaigns.

The situation was so tense that Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., took the unusual step of reading aloud from the House rule that admonishes lawmakers to ''maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect.'' A few moments later, the proceedings were briefly disrupted b y a spectator who began shouting a religious message. He was removed.

While the vote leaves Gingrich a weakened speaker, it allows him to keep his leadership post. A Democratic speaker, Jim Wright, resigned in 1989 after he was charged with ethics violations.

''Seven years ago the Democrats abandoned Jim Wright; today the Republicans rescued Newt Gingrich,'' said Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio.

The vote also set the stage for Republicans to focus anew on the party's legislative agenda. The speaker and other House GOP leaders were leaving yesterday for a previously scheduled retreat in the Virginia countryside to discuss their program.

They're already lagging behind Senate Republicans, who yesterday unveiled their top 11 priorities for the new Congress.

Rep. Steven Schiff, R-N.M., a member of the subcommittee that investigated Gingrich for a year, said the speaker's misleading statements resulted from ''a comedy of errors.''

''Lawyers thought staff would fact-check. Staff thought the opposite. Nobody checked out the facts to see if they were accurate,'' Schiff said.

That brought a blast from Pelosi, a Democratic subcommittee member. She said she believed ''Mr. Gingrich gave these different answers to the committee, not because of a comedy of errors but because he thought he could get away with it.''

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said the ethics panel was ''subjected to repeated attempts to obstruct its work.''

Even after Gingrich admitted his violations, the committee found the speaker broke his agreement not to comment about the findings or send his surrogates out to do so.

This ''raises serious questions about the extent to which he has sought to mislead the committee,'' Cardin said.