Interview Fred WertheimerQ: The Washington Post says today, 'Gingrich calls for more, not less, campaign cash.' What's going on here?
Wertheimer: Well, the speaker has always worked both sides of the street on the corruption ethics issues. I think it's very important to understand that if you look at the history of speaker Gingrich, issues of ethics and corruption have been partisan weapons, not moral concepts. So that he, in effect, has made his bones on these issues during his many years in the minority. He attacked the House as a corrupt institution. He brought ethics charges. He constantly attacked the legitimacy of the institution. At the same time, he built a financial empire based on special interest and private influence money. He did everything he could to block the reforms, the serious reforms of the system that were undertaken. And now of course he's the king of this corrupt system. The money is flowing his way. And what he's trying to do here is scramble. He's trying to still hold off the notion that he wants to change this system while he's continuing a pattern of trying to make sure the corrupt system stays in place.
This, by the way, is going to be the ultimate test for Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries. Because, you can't be a revolutionary if you're doing it floating on an ocean of huge campaign contributions from corporate America and wealthy individuals. And the ultimate test here is -- will he lead the effort or will he allow the effort to fundamentally change the way Washington works? Or is he going to do what he's done throughout his history, which is -- behind the scenes, and sometimes publicly, try to make sure that this corrupt system in Washington stays in place?
Q: You don't see him as the rebel and the outsider and the revolutionary, I take it.
Wertheimer: Well, when you look at this corruption of the political system that exists today, when you look at the way business is done in Washington and in terms of lobbyists, huge campaign contributions, people buying and selling access and influence over government policy, Newt Gingrich is a career Washington inside politician. And in fact today, Newt Gingrich is perhaps the leading practitioner of the Washington influence money game, certainly one of the two or three top practitioners. So, when it comes to money, lobbyists, the break-down of the political system, Newt Gingrich is the opposite of revolutionary. He is the chief protector, preserver, and defender of this corrupt system.
And so you then have to look at this revolution as it plays out because one of the fundamental questions that we're gonna have to see when we add it all up at the end is: who is being satisfied by this revolution? America's middle class? All of American citizens? Or America's political donor class? Is Newt Gingrich a revolutionary to change the way business is done in Washington? Or is Newt Gingrich a front for the establishment class that has exercised disproportionate, improper influence over government policy in recent decades through the use of money?
Q: There's a Congresswoman, Linda Smith, who is, in effect, saying these are the old boys, old establishment--Dems and Republicans trying to stall reform. What's going on with Linda Smith?
Wertheimer: Well, Linda Smith is Newt Gingrich's Newt Gingrich. Linda Smith has come to Washington to change this system. She's got a track record (before she came here) in the state of Washington for being a political reformer, of working to change the campaign finance laws. From everything I've seen, she is dead set and dead serious about fundamental change in the way business is done in Washington. And she's just basically calling it as she sees it and she's correct.
You've got Newt Gingrich and you've got some senior Democrats who can't agree on anything, but seem to be interested in walking hand in hand to once more try to block change in Washington. I think the Speaker is making a fundamental mistake here. He's making frankly the same mistake that President Clinton and Speaker Foley made in early 1993, when they decided after an election based on change in Washington, that they could get away with putting this issue to the side, not dealing with the way in which money is corrupting the political process, and just doing their other stuff and getting away with it. The 1994 election was a rejection of the Democrats and part of what they were rejecting was this corrupt system in Washington. A corrupt system that Newt Gingrich had been attacking for 16 years. Now Newt Gingrich wins, he becomes speaker, you don't hear the words from his mouth any more about the House being a corrupt institution. You don't hear him talking about a corrupt system any more. He somehow seems to believe that his presence as speaker has magically washed away all the problems that come from these millions of dollars of corrupt campaign contributions. He too was trying to get away with it .
And one of the things that Linda Smith is doing is very simple. She's telling truth to power. Just like Newt Gingrich thought he was telling truth to power when he was a new member. She is basically saying that this isn't going to work. If we don't clean up this system, we will not have accomplished the change we were elected to change. And Newt Gingrich so far is saying, 'We can get away with it. We can fool the American people.' There's another big consequence for the speaker here if he doesn't see the light and doesn't understand that his words actually require him to change this rotten system. The consequence is this: his revolution will not have any moral or political legitimacy in America. Speaker Gingrich's new government will be a government that came out of a corrupt political process and the people are going to be just as cynical about him and his changes as they have been about what's going on now. He is ultimately going to fail in his revolution as well as fail in his stated goal, of cleaning up a corrupt system if he doesn't straighten up and fly right here and get in front of the line and say, 'All right, I am gonna clean up this corrupt rotten mess in Washington.'
Q: On C-span last night in his half hour presentation -- apparently Common Cause is not one of his favorite organizations. He refers to it as socialist, as left-wing. Why this attack on Common Cause?
Wertheimer: Oh, it's a subject shift. It's kind of a way of trying to move attention, to create his own devil. Somehow the devils are no longer the PACs that he used to call a grotesque distortion of popular will. Somehow the devils are no longer the corrupt way in which the campaign finance system creates enormous advantages for incumbents--starting with his incumbent control over Congress.
It's simply a way of trying to move the issue around. This is part of the way he operates. He uses words as weapons. He uses the issues, as I said before, of corruption as ethics, as patrician tactics. It can't work in this area. The American people fully understand that when you have wealthy individuals and corporations and labor unions putting up contributions of one hundred thousand dollars, two-hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars, that's corrupting the political process. And there is no way in the world that Newt Gingrich, no matter what technique, what tactics, or what words he uses, is gonna talk the American people out of it.
Q: He spent a lot of time attacking millionaire incumbents candidates, saying rich people can spend their own money, they don't have to worry about raising money, they just buy their office and then they're in. Why single out millionaires?
Wertheimer: Well, because millionaires are a problem in the system. A millionaire has a big advantage, in terms of being able to spend all his/her money. However, they're a small problem compared to the so-called soft money system, which has allowed millions and millions and millions of dollars in huge corrupt contributions to come into the political process of both parties.
The soft money system was used to fuel his own PAC, GOPAC. Now, last Congress when he had no power, he co-sponsored legislation to shut down the soft money system. To end it. When he testified recently, that wasn't on his mind somehow. So if you talk about millionaires, you ignore the biggest problem in the system, you're trying to get people's attention away from the real problem. He has played games with the issue of money and politics for a career when he was in the minority and now he's playing games when he's in the majority. The stakes are much larger for him now because huge, huge amounts of money are flowing to the speaker and his party, at the Congressional level, at the party level and they don't want to turn those spigots off. They want to let that corrupting money keep flowing -- How do they do it as revolutionaries?
You talked about the speaker describing himself as a citizen politician. But he's a citizen politician that is sitting on and being fueled by the political donor class of America. You know, you can only straddle that line for so long. And they are trying to straddle it. The speaker is trying to argue that money corrupts when it goes to Democrats. Ethics are a problem when they go to Democrats. The institution is corrupt when the Democrats control it. Now we control things. We shouldn't spend too much time worrying about drowning in this special interest influence money, let us do our populist revolution. But you know, these people who are putting up these huge sums of money, they expect something from this so-called populist revolution. So are we going to get a populist revolution? Or are we gonna get the buying and selling of American public policy? That's a big question as this plays out.
Q: One of the things Newt talked about yesterday was that he wants more money. He says that the Atlanta Constitution and the networks have billions of dollars and that the campaigns are, in fact, under-financed and we've got to raise the personal contribution limits.
Wertheimer: Well, somehow he's managed to rise to the second most powerful job in America. So the notion that poor Speaker Gingrich can't make it on all of the money he's put together for his financial empire, is basically a joke. I mean, it's another form of subject shift. He's partially right. Challengers need more money. Incumbents don't have a problem getting money and if you increase the individual contribution limit from a thousand to five thousand dollars, which means an individual could give ten thousand dollars, how does that fit with citizen politics? How many citizens in America can give ten thousand dollars to a politician? So what that does is make the handful of rich people in America even more powerful in Newt Gingrich's system and citizens less powerful.
But Newt Gingrich has managed to oppose every comprehensive reform effort that in part was designed to get more money to challengers. He opposed public financing. Fine. There are proposals for free tv time. I haven't heard him talking about that. There are proposals to require networks and broadcasters to sell time at fifty percent below cost. That's a way of reducing the cost. That would be very helpful for challengers. I haven't heard him talking about that. I don't want to call his approach to all of this a flim-flam, but, it is. That's what we're dealing with here. And here is the test: you always have to watch and see what the speaker is saying about the soft money system. That's the system that allows the largest contributions, unlimited contributions from corporate America, unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals, to flow into Washington and to exercise enormous influence at the expense of the average citizen.
You have to remember that when the speaker had no power, he said, shut that system down. And as long as the speaker is not supporting and talking about shutting down the system, that is the biggest finance abuse in America, You know, the speaker is not for real on campaign finance reform. You know he's trying to have it both ways. Out of this side of the mouth he's trying to say we gotta deal with this problem. This is a serious problem. But when it comes to the use of his power, his power is being used to make sure that the heart of this corrupt system stays in place.
Q: The speaker said your idea of limiting individual campaign contributions would be a nonsensical socialist analysis based on hatred of the free enterprise system...
Wertheimer: [laughs] Well, that's incorrect. It is based on hatred of corruption --a notion, by the way, that the American people have felt throughout our entire history. Our society has never accepted corruption. We fought it throughout our history. You pass rules, you bring it under control. It works its way back. You have to keep fighting. These are cyclical issues. A United States Congress enacted the contribution limit. The Supreme Court upheld contribution limits on individuals and PACs. The reason they did it is this: they said that these contributions have the capacity to corrupt public officials and they also have the capacity to give the appearance of corrupting public officials. That's something that is going on right now and is part of why we have the cynicism in this country.
So I think Speaker Gingrich's economics, history, political science is wrong here and once again, basically, the Speaker is just scrambling for ways to try to defend the indefensible. After all, the speaker says he wants to cut PAC contributions from five thousand to one thousand dollars. Recognizing that PACs are part of lobbying activities and they are often used to buy influence. Well, a wealthy influence going from one-thousand to five-thousand dollars, isn't that going to increase the ability of individuals to use contributions to buy influence? Does the speaker somehow think that only groups would use money to buy influence? That wealthy individuals would not use the money? He knows better.
These are all strike out efforts. Whether it's striking out at Common Cause or striking out at the people who are trying to reform the system or striking out at the media or striking out at the Democrats. But, when you come back to it, you have to face the question: well, where does he stand on cleaning up this mess? Now, if you want to understand how important cleaning up the corrupt system in Washington has been to the speaker to date, I would bring one fact to the table at this point: somehow this issue was left out of the Contract With America. Somehow the same issue that had been central to Newt Gingrich's argument throughout his career in the minority -- that this was a corrupt system, that PACs were a grotesque feature in the system, that money politics was driving out and defeating citizen politicians --somehow not a word about this was included in the Contract With America. Why? Because this is one of the most unusual revolutions in the history of the world. This is a revolution that is being financed and paid for by the power establishment of this country. The corporations, the richest people in this country, are paying the bills of this so-called revolution. And I would submit to you they are not paying the bill without expecting something in return.
Q: So when Newt Gingrich says let's put together a bipartisan commission on power and political reform in the information age, Democrats and Republicans and report back next May--don't hold your breath?
Wertheimer: Well, what Newt Gingrich is saying is, "Let's see if we can figure out one more time how to take them for a ride. You have to understand that for the last three Congresses in a row, the House of Representatives has passed a campaign finance bill, the Senate has passed a campaign finance bill, and somehow we don't have any new laws about campaign financing. Somehow it has been 21 years since we last passed a campaign finance law in this country.
So, there is no evidence so far as we speak that Newt Gingrich is serious about cleaning up this campaign finance system. There is a lot of evidence that he is trying to follow the path of his predecessors in the house and somehow try to make sure, now that he sits on top as king of this corrupt system, that nobody will disturb his reign and no one is going to turn off the spigot, the real spigot.
Q: Why are the Democrats not going after Newt Gingrich on an issue like this, especially if it's an issue that has overwhelming support in the American population? Campaign reform, American people want it?
Wertheimer: Well, let's distinguish Democrats here. Again, as we speak, there are a number of Democrats in the House and Senate who are supporting very tough bipartisan bills. There is a very strong bipartisan bill in the Senate, led by Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Senator Feingold, a Democrat. There's a very strong bipartisan bill in the House, led by Representative Linda Smith and Chris Shays, both Republicans, and Representative Martin Mean and David Mingy, both Democrats. In fact, it is these bills that are starting to take off that led Newt Gingrich, in part, to decide that maybe we should have a commission and study this thing. We don't want to rush into anything.
So there are some Democrats who very much want to deal with this issue. There are other Democrats, senior Democrats, who at this hearing, instead of saying to Speaker Gingrich, 'This is wrong, time to change this system,' said, 'Oh, this sounds good to us.' Members of the House Democratic leadership. All I can say is they are making the same ridiculous mistakes they made when they ran the place. And when these senior Democrats, the leadership in the House, who are attacking Newt Gingrich on everything else, say, 'Well, now maybe we can get together on this,' their message is: well, we've got bipartisan reform bills that would really change this system. Let's see if we can get an old boys bipartisan cover effort to make sure it doesn't happen. That's the only way to read what happened at that hearing.
Now maybe it will change. Hopefully those senior Democrats and more Democrats and more Republicans will come to understand the game is over. The American people are not gonna buy it.
Q: But he has made some very strong statements about cleaning up Washington. A few years ago he sounded like you. He was in the pulpit.
Wertheimer: I'll read you a quote and you won't be able to tell whether it's me or someone else from Common Cause or Newt Gingrich:
'The first duty of our generation is to reestablish integrity and a bond of honesty in the political process. We should punish wrong-doers in politics and government and pass reform laws to clean up the election and lobbying system. We must insure that citizens politics defeats money politics. This is the only way our system can retain its integrity. Every action should be measured against that goal. Every American should be challenged to register and vote to achieve that goal.'
I'm sorry I didn't write that. It's a wonderful statement. It just doesn't match up with what the speaker does. And of course that's a fundamental problem here. Let me read you one more statement: 'Congress is a broken system. It is increasingly a system of corruption in which money politics is defeating and driving out citizen politics. Corruption, special favors, dishonesty and deception corrode the very process of freedom and alienate citizens from their country.'
Wonderful stuff.....I mean, those words, very similar to the words of what the speaker would say is 'Socialist Common Cause.' We start to part company when we start looking at solutions and more importantly when we start looking at actions. Let me give you a couple of examples: Speaker Gingrich: 'PACs are a grotesque, grotesque distortion of the popular will.' He said that in 1993 --'PACs are a grotesque distortion of the popular will.'
Speaker Gingrich, in the fall of 1994, talking in a private meeting, which got published, to the business PAC community. Fall of 1994. Elections hadn't take place. On the verge of taking over the House of Representatives: 'For anybody who's not on board now, it's going to be the two coldest years in Washington.'
Now that is, of course, the equivalent of political extortion. That is telling the PACs, 'If you don't pay now, you're gonna get no access and influence when we take over.' So which is it? Are these PACs a grotesque distortion, the place that the speaker goes and basically offers a deal: pay, we'll take care of you. Don't pay, you're on the street. Words, Actions. You look at the speaker and he says, 'Congress is a broken system, it's increasingly a system of corruption in which money politics is defeating and driving out citizen politics.' What does he do? He builds a financial empire based on money politics. GOPAC, his foundation, his campaign, they are based on large sums, huge sums of money from people who want influence. That is money politics driving out citizen politics. What does he do about the battle? He fights all the efforts to reform the system.
Let's look at one more. 'We should punish wrong-doers in politics and government and pass reform laws to clean up the election and lobby system.' That sounds pretty good. That sounds right. What happens with GOPAC? His PAC that he heads. They failed to comply with the campaign finance laws, according to the Federal Election Commission. The Federal Election Commission brings an action on them, that is still pending right now, and Speaker Gingrich doesn't go out and correct the problem. He doesn't disclose all the contributions. No, he starts a campaign against the Federal Election Commission, which he attacks now every chance he can get. Now he said we should punish wrong-doers in politics and government. He didn't say we should punish wrong-doers, except for Newt Gingrich and my PAC.
Then he says we should pass reform laws to clean up the election and lobbying system. So in the last Congress, when there's an effort to pass a comprehensive lobby reform bill -- a bill that would ban gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress--what does he do? He opens up a disinformation campaign against it. He says, publicly, people might go to jail if this law passes.
When the words come out, they sound good. Sometimes they sound wonderful. If you follow the patterns of actions, they are on the other side of the street, including major efforts over the years to make sure that the laws that would clean up this system did not pass.
Q: Back in January you, in a more hopeful mood it seems, wrote an open letter to the new Speaker of the House, and said, basically, will the real Newt Gingrich please stand up? And you seemed to be rooting for the Newt Gingrich who, in his statement, said he was gonna clean up Congress. Do you have any hope that this man may come around to his revolutionary words?
Wertheimer: Well, I'm always hopeful. Absolutely. I think Speaker Gingrich is a very smart, skillful, talented leader. He is extraordinarily skillful with the use of words. He's a very effective leader. And I remain hopeful that he will see the light here. It is in his own best interest. He is gonna wind up being looked at and seen just the way he saw the Democratic speakers of the House if he doesn't finally see the light and decide to clean up this system. His revolution is not going to make it long-term, short-term, medium-term, if he does not clean up this system. So, when I said, 'Would the real Speaker Gingrich stand-up,' I knew what we were dealing with here. That wasn't just hopeful, that was realistic. I knew we were dealing with a man who had one course of action with his words and another course of action with his actions. To date, we're still dealing with that same person.
It's not too late. Not at all. Speaker Gingrich could be a true revolutionary here, if he cleaned up and took the lead in changing a corrupt system which is at the heart of American cynicism. Speaker Gingrich objects to all the cynicism in the country. He very much objects to it and he's right. We should not have to be as cynical as we are. He tends to blame it on the media, on his opponents, on partisan terms, when he should understand that his corrupt system is central to the cynicism in this country. We're not gonna get through this period of cynicism without cleaning up the political system in this country. And he now sits as one of the few people at the top. He will either clean it up or he'll pay the price in history.
Q: Newt Gingrich took over GOPAC in '86, which Pete Du Pont had started in the late seventies. Describe GOPAC. Did Newt (with GOPAC) find a way to get around the rules?
Wertheimer: Well, people always search for ways to get around the rules. Now you deal with that in two ways. If you have good enforcement of the laws, that really minimizes getting around the rules. If the enforcement is as weak as it's been, then people just keep pushing the envelope. When you see a problem arise, you change the law. But in the campaign finance area, they block changing the law `cause they wanna hold on to the system. So after 20 years, you have problems that arise and there's been no opportunity to correct them because all of the efforts to correct them have been blocked.
So in that context, what the speaker did with GOPAC was get around the law by taking a political action committee and raising huge amounts of money that could not be used in Federal campaigns --the soft money problem that runs through the parties. Here is the first and still the largest example of the way a political action committee, as opposed to a political party, was used to get around the campaign finance laws that effect federal elections. And that's what he invented with GOPAC. Now their claim was that these huge sums of money were only being used for purposes of non-federal activity-- create a farm team in the state legislatures, help people at the local level so at some time down the road, they might be able to run for Federal office.
But, you know, Newt Gingrich's goal from the beginning with GOPAC was to use it to help take over control of the House of Representatives. It's very hard for Speaker Gingrich to argue that all of his millions that he raised, from all of these wealthy individuals and corporations, was done for some kind of local party building basis. In fact, they were done to build towards the day when he could take over the House as he's done. But in the process, and the FEC has called them on it, they failed to file as federal political committee. Therefore they failed to disclose those contributions. If they had been filing as a federal political committee, and if the FEC had not allowed the soft money system to take place, GOPAC never would have happened this way.
So you have a combination of Newt Gingrich trying to figure out how to get outside the rules of the game. And the Federal Election Commission's failure to enforce meant opening the door. As a result, you have a PAC created, not by Gingrich, but he took it over, in which very large sums of money were raised and could not be used in federal elections, but were channeled to help get people into federal office. Now the Federal Election Commission finally called GOPAC on it. And GOPAC has fought `em every step of the way. The commission is in court now saying that GOPAC has failed to properly register the committee.
To this day, GOPAC finally registers, but now, they only disclose a very small portion of their contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. In my view that is a flat violation of the law. But here is Speaker Gingrich, now Speaker of the House, and instead of cleaning this situation up, instead of recognizing that they should have filed, instead of having them file with the commission today, this practice still goes on.
Q: So, how do you rate Newt as a fund-raiser trolling for new money?
Wertheimer: Big-time. He's a big-time raiser of big-time private influence money. He brought large sums of money in --either in soft money to the parties or in large contributions to his own, to the PAC he was running, GOPAC. Or in large contributions to the foundation he's associated with. He spent a good amount of time going after very big campaign dollars --dollars from people with a huge stake in government policy.
Let's take one example. Golden Rule Insurance. Here's a company that is at the center of an idea that has become central to the Republican proposal for revising Medicare. Medical Savings Plan. Newt Gingrich has described them as one of the most important new ideas here. Now, this company is headed by an individual, Mr. Rooney, and between them they have given huge sums of money to Gingrich's campaigns to run for office, to GOPAC, to his foundation. They've given soft money to the party, they are a source of huge contributions, new money, from someone who wanted a fundamental change in government policy. A controversial change. A change that Newt Gingrich has pushed very hard. Now Speaker Gingrich will argue and does argue, 'I am for this on the merits.' But how are we to know, how is anyone to know whether this idea is moving it's way through the system because it's a great idea, or because this company has bought enormous influence through huge campaign contributions? That appearance of corruption is part of why we have limits on the system, limits that Newt Gingrich walked around, evaded, when he started playing out his GOPAC campaign over the years.
Q: When asked why for years GOPAC wasn't releasing any names of who these donors are --the former GOPAC chair Bo Callaway said, 'We've got some of the shyest people you've ever known who contribute to GOPAC. What if GOPAC did something wrong and I was associated with it...they just don't want to be named.' Now, why not protect the privacy of some shy people?
Wertheimer: Well, because we have to protect the integrity of the American political system and the rights of American citizens first. There are a lot of shy people. You just can't combine shyness with giving huge campaign contributions in our political system. You have to choose. You can stay shy, but you can't be shy and give and be protected. I mean, no.
That's why we have disclosure laws. Disclosure is universally accepted. Everyone agrees that disclosure is a given, which makes it so ironic that the speaker finds himself in a position where GOPAC is not making full disclosure in accordance with the FEC laws. The speaker talks an awful lot about moral leadership. He talks about moral leadership being important in this country. This is not the kind of moral leadership that should come from the second most powerful person in the country.
Q: Bo Callaway said that they established something they called Charter Members to GOPAC. To be a charter member of GOPAC, you have to give at least $10,000 a year. $10,000, should that be the limit for shyness in this? You give $10,000, you no longer can be shy?
Wertheimer: No. The limit for shyness is a lot lower than ten-thousand dollars. The disclosure laws on the books that no one challenges requires contributions of two hundred dollars or more to be disclosed. So, no shyness, when it comes to the fundamental integrity of our political system, to the ability of the American people to believe their interests are being represented by our democracy, that they are not second-class citizens because political donors have become the first class citizens in our society.
Q: Some of this money is what could be called ideological money. People here who are very wealthy individuals believe in a conservative ideology and probably that's the primary reason they're giving.
Wertheimer: Let me comment on that. Because when you deal with huge sums of money, lots of it comes for purposes of influence. Sometimes it comes because of ideology and philosophy. Sometimes it comes just to support a particular candidate.
The problem is huge sums of money are dangerous. And there is no way to distinguish and say, well, this hundred thousand dollars is fine because this individual doesn't want anything. But this hundred thousand dollars, no, that's no good, because we know they want to change public policy in Medicare. That is why you have rules that say not a dollar of corporate money in federal elections and that's why you limit individual contributions to a thousand dollars for a campaign. And when you go around those rules and start bringing those huge contributions in, you are opening the door to corruption and the appearance of corruption and most importantly, you are contributing to the cynicism of the America people. You're not helping to restore their sense that the government is in balance and working for them. You're just increasing their sense that this is a rigged, fixed system operating at their expense.
Big money is dangerous, corrupt money. Big money operates at the expense of the average citizen, the average tax payer in this country. That is most people. Big money separates politicians from the citizens who elect them for representation. They don't elect them to disproportionately represent big money.
Q: Do you remember when you first became aware of Newt Gingrich?
Wertheimer: Well, I remember his campaigns against Flynt. I remember him raising ethics questions. And they became central questions in the campaign. So you start off saying, 'Here's someone who's interested in issues that Common Cause believes are of central importance to the people's ability to have confidence in their government.'
Q: He goes after Speaker Wright. At one point, he solicits support from Common Cause. What was your response?
Wertheimer: Our response was that we would not in any way become involved with him in his efforts. That our practice was to look at ethics questions in Congress independently. We had a long history even at that time of being an ethics watchdog and raising questions with the ethics committee. He by then had developed a pattern and practice which very much made us want to stay away from him and that was the practice of using ethics and corruption issues as partisan tools. And that didn't necessarily mean that there wasn't an ethics problem. But it didn't necessarily mean there was when he was involved because we were concerned that there was a very large partisan overtone to what he was doing. So we basically informed them that we would in no way be involved with him.
But that was our practice as a general rule. We never got involved with any member of Congress when we were looking at an ethics matter. We also made clear, I believe at the time, that we would monitor and were monitoring what was going on in the Wright case.
You constantly face partisan swirls going on in these ethics questions. Common Cause chose the role to stay separate from them, not to get involved if there was nothing there. But also on our own terms, through our own independent work, if we saw an ethics problem, we were gonna get involved and raise questions, regardless of what else was going on.
Q: So whatever nervousness or suspicion you had about this being partisan, in fact, Common Cause does go and file a complaint against the Speaker Wright.
Wertheimer: Well, we were looking at this at the time that he asked us about it. We weren't interested in partisan. We were interested in ethics. We conducted a very careful examination of this. Archibald Cox, who was the chairman of Common Cause, the former Watergate special prosecutor, worked with me on this. The assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division under President Carter, was our outside counsel and worked with me on this. And we finally concluded that a ethics investigation should take place and I wrote a letter to the ethics committee asking for an investigation of Speaker Wright and asking that an outside counsel be appointed.
Q: Do you agree at this point, looking back on it now, that Jim Wright had done unethical things?
Wertheimer: No doubt about it in my mind. And I think if you look at the report and the findings of the investigation, you'll reach that conclusion.
Q: Any regrets about the affair at all?
Wertheimer: No. No regrets at all. Now, all of the charges being raised in this case, and including many of the charges raised by Newt Gingrich, were not charges that were found against the speaker. But there were clear violations that occurred. Not only do I not have any regrets, I believe that that is part of what Common Cause is supposed to do and did do. We were influential in making sure that the process worked.
During this process, we did not charge Speaker Wright with ethical violations. That was something that Newt Gingrich was doing. That was not what we were arguing. We were saying that there were serious charges that had been raised, and it is the ethics committee's job to investigate this matter and they can't investigate it credibly without an outside counsel. Something that Newt Gingrich agreed with, at that time, when he said there could be no serious internal investigation in this case without an outside counsel. So I believe we did the right thing. I believe the committee reached the right conclusions in that case.
Q: And your response to how now Newt Gingrich is saying, 'Whatever you do in investigating me, don't get an independent counsel. And if you do get one, limit the scope'?
Wertheimer: I would describe it as another example of the pattern that follows Speaker Gingrich throughout his career, particularly when you're dealing with issues of ethics and corruption. They are situational. And they're often situational when they apply to Democrats or to opponents. So, here is Speaker Gingrich who agreed with us--we filed the first request in the Wright case--both for the investigation and for the outside counsel and for the open scope so the counsel could do their job. Speaker Gingrich agreed that you had to have an outside counsel. He said there's a higher standard, first of all, when you have a speaker and he correctly said--as we did--when you're dealing with the Speaker of the House you're dealing with such a powerful person, you have to get someone from the outside. And you have to let them do their job.
Now here we are, Common Cause has called for an outside person. Common Cause has called for that person to be able to do their job. Speaker Gingrich has adamantly fought against any outside counsel being involved in this case. He is opposing any scope for the counsel. We didn't support a fishing expedition with Jim Wright. And Common Cause, which is now headed by Ann McBride, has not supported a fishing expedition for Newt Gingrich. But you must have an outside person and let that person do his job.
Common Cause is very consistent here. Speaker Gingrich is very inconsistent. And that inconsistency you can track throughout his career whenever you're looking at questions of ethics, of corruption in the political process.
Q: Do you ever feel unloved? You got the Republicans on you when you're going after the one, the Democrats on the other.
Wertheimer: No, not at all. There are a lot of people in this country, I believe, who share the views of Common Cause, who are concerned about what goes on in this city. What we have done is to challenge the way this city works, to challenge the way power is exercised and hopefully to carry out that old wonderful comment of trying to tell truth to power. Power doesn't like to hear the truth. Power doesn't like to be challenged. And that's what it's all about. Any day I wake up and someone's attacking me in Washington, I have the sense that I must be doing something pretty good.