Background: Judgement Day for Speaker Newt Gingrich
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KWAME HOLMAN: The House was prepared for some partisan pie-throwing when it convened at noon today.
REP. DOUG BEREUTER, (R) Nebraska: The chair asks and expects the cooperation of all members in maintaining a level of decorum that properly dignifies the proceedings of the House.
KWAME HOLMAN: Members were about to launch into a debate over sanctions against Speaker Newt Gingrich. An Ethics Committee investigation had found the Speaker violated House rules by using tax-exempt contributions to support a college course he taught with the intention of building support for the Republican Party. The committee also found Gingrich provided it with inaccurate information about the court. Gingrich, who agreed with the committee’s findings, had little to say today but other members were free to speak, a natural opportunity to fan partisan fires. There was one brief outburst from the visitors’ gallery.
SPOKESMAN: The House will be in order.
KWAME HOLMAN: But on the floor members for the most part kept their rhetoric in check. In fact, the four members–the charges against the Speaker had nothing but good things to say about each other.
REP. BEN CARDIN, (D) Maryland: I want to comment and compliment the work of our chairman, Porter Goss, for the extraordinary work that he did, as well as the work of Steve Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, the work of the subcommittee.
REP. PORTER GOSS, (R) Florida: I take my hat off to Ben Cardin, Steve Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, all of whom in my view bring great credit to this institution.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) California: –investigative subcommittee, I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Porter Goss, our chair of the investigative subcommittee, again acknowledge Ben Cardin as ranking member for his service there, as well as to say how much I learned from Mr. Schiff in the course of our service there.
REP. STEVEN SCHIFF, (R) New Mexico: I first want to join in the compliments to the other committee members and to our staff and our special counsel because even though we had many disagreements along the way and obviously still have disagreements, I think we made the best possible effort to get us here today.
KWAME HOLMAN: But then the members of the subcommittee went on to point out those disagreements.
REP. STEVEN SCHIFF: The final conclusion of the subcommittee did not change, and that final conclusion is first; that Mr. Gingrich should have sought competent legal professional tax advice before he began his procedures that involve the use of a tax-exempt foundation which under the law is called a 501C-3 organization, and second that materials were sent to the Ethics Committee in response to questions in the Ethics Committee that the Speaker should have known were inaccurate. That is the final finding, if you will, of the subcommittee.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Unfortunately, when terms of Speaker Gingrich’s dealings with the committee on a number of occasions and in his violation of the agreement under which we would go forward in bringing this issue to a conclusion, Mr. Gingrich’s statements lead me to one conclusion: that Mr. Gingrich in his dealings with the committee is not to be believed. I conclude also that Mr. Gingrich gave these different answers not because it was a comity of errors but because he thought he could get away with it.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Friday, the full Ethics Committee voted seven to one to issue a reprimand to Speaker Gingrich for his violations and fine him $300,000. The Ethics Committee’s special counsel, James Cole, was asked to describe the reasons for those sanctions.
SPOKESMAN: Why not a censure?
JAMES COLE, Special Counsel: A reprimand is for a serious violation. A censure is for a more serious violation. That’s not a definitive standard, particularly in my field, where sometimes in the criminal law that definitive standards are there. There wasn’t personal gain to Mr. Gingrich. He didn’t, as we found, we did not make a finding that he intentionally lied. If he had, I would be recommending sanction all day long–or excuse me–censure all day long.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: In regard to the $300,000–
JAMES COLE: It really relates directly to the burdens that were placed on the House as a result of not getting accurate information in the first place. If we had–if the House had, if the committee had gotten truthful answers, accurate answers, to those questions in the first place, I think it was the view of I know myself and I’m sure the members of the subcommittee that we wouldn’t be here at this time. We would have resolved this matter long ago.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Ethics Committee did not dictate what source the Speaker should use to pay his $300,000 fine, a point that was debated briefly.
SPOKESMAN: In my view this payment should come from his personal resources because it is a personal responsibility.
SPOKESMAN: It’s my understanding that there are at least some precedents for campaign funds, for example, being used to reimburse the government, and certainly we all know that the chief executive of the United States has a legal defense fund in which he raises money. So I’m just saying that whatever the options are to Newt Gingrich as a member of the House have not been precluded legally by the committee and, in my judgment, they shouldn’t be.
KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Republican Lamar Smith was the lone member of the Ethics Committee to vote against the sanctions against Gingrich.
REP. LAMAR SMITH, (R) Texas: My conclusion is that the penalty that has been assessed by the Ethics Committee is way too severe when you look at the actual findings of the committee and when you look at the precedent that has been established by this House. Now let’s look at the actual findings, and there have been two here. The first finding is that the Speaker should have consulted an attorney about tax laws; the second is that he submitted two inaccurate letters to the Ethics Committee. Now these are real mistakes, but they shouldn’t be hanging offenses, especially when you consider that there was no finding of any law that was broken, there was no finding of any intent to mislead the Ethics Committee, and there was no finding that the Speaker received any personal financial gain.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Smith wasn’t the only Republican who objected to the severity of the sanctions. Ethics Committee member David Hobson did too but said he was prepared to vote for them anyway.
REP. DAVID HOBSON, (R) Ohio: But the Speaker accepted the charges and a sanction against him. And I believe that demonstrates to all of us and the American public that he truly regretted his actions and sends a message that the Speaker’s conduct should be held to a particularly high standard, as should every other member’s.
KWAME HOLMAN: Most members chose to follow the advice of Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson, the chairman of the Ethics Committee, who urged they try to put this matter behind them.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON, Chairman, Ethics Committee: Today we conclude this case by imposing a heavy penalty on the leader of this House. It is a tough penalty, unprecedented and appropriate. But if our action fails today to chasten this body and bring a halt to the crippling partisanship and animosity that has surrounded us, then we will have lost an opportunity to grow and learn from this solemn occasion. And that would be a tragedy.
KWAME HOLMAN: As was expected, the sanctions against the Speaker were approved overwhelmingly.
SPOKESMAN: On this vote the ayes are 395. The nays are twenty-eight, with five members voting “present.” The resolution is adopted.