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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Newt’s Erroneous Ethics Alibi

Newt Gingrich falsely claimed the House ethics panel that voted to reprimand him in 1997 was “a very partisan political committee.” He was also off base when he said the inquiry was “a Pelosi-driven effort.”

In fact, the House Committee on Ethics is the only House panel evenly divided by party. And Pelosi was a relatively junior House member and not in a leadership position at the time. It’s true she was one of four members on the subcommittee that conducted the investigation, but she was just one of eight members on the full committee — which dismissed 83 of the charges that other Democrats brought against Gingrich.

The ethics panel was far from a “partisan” committee. Three of the panel’s Republican members joined all four Democrats in the 7-1 vote to recommend that the full House reprimand Gingrich — on a single charge of misleading the committee. On the day the committee released its final report, the Republican chairwoman praised Pelosi and other subcommittee members for working “in a collegial, nonpartisan manner in a difficult environment.”

And far from being “driven” by Pelosi, the case against Gingrich actually was pressed most prominently by Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, who was then the Democratic whip. Pelosi was still years away from joining the ranks of the Democratic leadership, which she did when she succeeded Bonior as whip in January 2002.

Democrats accused Gingrich of violating tax laws by misusing tax-exempt groups for political purposes. The allegations centered on Gingrich’s teaching of a videotaped college course called “Renewing American Civilization,” which Democrats claimed he put together with improper help from his congressional staff, and which they said he illegally supported using tax-deductible charitable donations to meet “political, not educational” objectives. In the end, 83 of the 84 charges were dropped. He was reprimanded for making misleading statements to the committee, and he paid $300,000 to offset the cost of the investigation. He accepted the committee’s findings as part of the agreement.

The former House speaker spoke about the ethics case during a Dec. 6 interview with Greta Van Susteren, host of Fox News’ “On the Record.” Van Susteren asked Gingrich about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s comments that she would discuss the ethics case “when the time’s right.” To that, Gingrich responded:

Gingrich, Dec. 6: I think what it does is it reminds people who probably didn’t know this that she was on the Ethics Committee, that it was a very partisan political committee, and that the way I was dealt with related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than the ethics. And I think in that sense, it actually helps me in getting people to understand — this was a Nancy Pelosi-driven effort. They filed 85 charges, 84 were dismissed.

Gingrich was only slightly off on his count: 84 charges were considered, and 83 dismissed. It’s true that the accusations against Gingrich were partisan. The ethics complaint was initially filed by Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who ran against Gingrich unsuccessfully in 1994. When Jones’ complaint was not resolved by the end of the 103rd Congress, an amended version of the complaint was refiled by Rep. Bonior, described in numerous news accounts at the time as his party’s “attack dog.”

But while the origin of the case was intensely partisan, the resolution was not. The Republicans controlled the House at the time of the investigation; Gingrich had just become the first Republican speaker since 1955. As a result, the Committee on Ethics was chaired by a Republican: Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. On the day the committee issued its report, Johnson commended the subcommittee that investigated Gingrich. That panel, as we said, included Pelosi.

Johnson, Jan. 18, 1997: I want to commend Representative Porter Goss and the other members of the subcommittee, Representatives Ben Cardin, Steve Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, for their extraordinary dedication and endurance throughout this process. I particularly want to commend the members of the subcommittee for their ability to carry out their responsibilities in a collegial, nonpartisan manner in a difficult environment.

The outside counsel in the inquiry, James Cole, corroborated those comments. “At the risk of repeating what has already been said, this has been very much a bipartisan process,” he said during the public hearing.

Evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the ethics panel voted 7 -1 to recommend that Gingrich be reprimanded and ordered to reimburse the House for the cost of the investigation. Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas cast the lone dissenting vote — and even he agreed that Gingrich made mistakes, but he objected to the punishment.

Gingrich fared no better in the full House, where Republicans enjoyed a 22-seat majority. The House voted 395 to 28 in favor of the punishment. It was the first time in the House’s 208-year history it had disciplined a speaker for ethical wrongdoing.

It should be noted — as the Gingrich campaign already has done — that ultimately the IRS ruled that the former Georgia congressman did not violate any tax laws, as Democrats initially claimed. The original complaints were indeed partisan, and overreaching, and an attempt to even the score for Gingrich’s role in the humiliation of former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright.

Bonior was seeking retribution against Gingrich for filing an ethics complaint in 1988 against Wright, who was ultimately cited for 69 violations of House rules, and later resigned as speaker and retired from the House. At the time, Gingrich’s camp blamed Bonior — not Pelosi — for driving the ethics effort. Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley issued a statement when the complaint was refiled in 1995 that read, in part: “If Newt had a dog, Bonior would accuse him of kicking it. Well, Newt doesn’t have a dog and Bonior doesn’t have a case.” And that proved to be true for 83 of the 84 counts — as Pelosi agreed by her vote.

— Michael Morse, with Eugene Kiely