Democrats press for probe of Gingrich after aide confirms he met with Murdoch

January 13, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats stepped up their attack on Newt Gingrich's ethics and credibility yesterday after learning that the new speaker met privately last fall with media magnate Rupert Murdoch, days before Mr. Murdoch's publishing house made a $4.5 million book deal with the Republican leader.

"Mr. Gingrich has a serious credibility problem with the American people," said Michigan Democrat David E. Bonior, who has been leading an attack on Mr. Gingrich's ethics. "The American people have a right to know whether or not Mr. Gingrich has used his public office for his own personal gain."

After both Democrats and Republicans questioned the propriety and appearance of the deal, Mr. Gingrich announced three weeks ago that he would give up the $4.5 million advance from Mr. Murdoch's HarperCollins publishing firm and instead take whatever royalties he receives from the sale of the two books he agreed to produce.

In addition to the large size of the advance, the book deal drew criticism because Mr. Murdoch has billions of dollars at stake in telecommunications legislation before Congress and federal regulators.

Thus, critics charge, the advance can be viewed as a sweetheart deal proffered by Mr. Murdoch in the hope that Mr. Gingrich would use his influence to help him both with Congress and the regulators.

At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Bonior said that even without the multimillion-dollar advance, "the speaker will receive substantial sums of money. He's going to take royalties and they're going to be tremendous."

Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley confirmed the meeting with Mr. Murdoch, first reported in the New York Daily News yesterday, saying that the two men chatted for 10 minutes on Nov. 28 in the Sam Rayburn Room of the Capitol.

'Courtesy call'

He said Mr. Murdoch was merely paying Mr. Gingrich a "courtesy call," as he had done that day with other lawmakers, and that they "passed the time of day."

The book deal, he said, "did not come up."

Mr. Blankley dismissed Mr. Bonior's charges as "one of his fantasy salvos."

Speaking on Cable News Network yesterday, Mr. Gingrich also called the meeting a "courtesy call" and said he hadn't known that Mr. Murdoch even owned the publishing firm "until after Bonior said so." He added that five publishing houses had bid on his book proposal, which was handled by his agent.

A spokesman for Mr. Murdoch supported Mr. Gingrich's remarks, saying the book contract was not discussed at the Nov. 28 meeting.

Mr. Murdoch, a native Australian and U.S. citizen whose company is based in Australia, owns the Fox TV network and the New York Post.

Congress is examining charges by NBC that his ownership of Fox violates laws against foreign ownership of U.S. stations. Republicans are likely to propose legislation to lift that ban.

At the Democrats' news conference yesterday, Rep. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called the book deal "highly suspect" since, as originally designed, it would have awarded millions to someone who had never written a successful book.

"This is not Danielle Steel," he said. "We're talking about Newt Gingrich."

Mr. Bonior noted that during the hourlong news conference Mr. Gingrich held in Georgia on Dec. 30, in which he declined the multimillion-dollar advance, he never mentioned that he had met with Mr. Murdoch.

"Why not?" the minority whip asked. "Why didn't he mention the meeting?"

Mr. Bonior reiterated his call for the appointment of an outside counsel "to investigate the ethics problems of the speaker."

The Michigan Democrat first called for an outside counsel to investigate charges against Mr. Gingrich relating to the funding and content of a college course the speaker teaches at Reinhardt College in Georgia. The House Ethics Committee is looking into those allegations.

"Every single day seems to bring new controversies that just add to the ethical cloud hanging over the speaker's head," Mr. Bonior said.

House historian's firing

The new twist to the book deal comes just as Mr. Gingrich was trying to quell the controversy over his ill-fated choice for the House historian's position.

On Monday, the speaker fired his appointee, Christina F. Jeffrey, after reports surfaced that in 1986, as a Department of Education consultant, she criticized a proposed junior high school course on the Holocaust because it didn't include "the Nazi point of view," nor that of the Ku Klux Klan.

In interviews after her firing, Ms. Jeffrey, a friend and former teaching colleague of Mr. Gingrich, said that she mentioned her controversial remarks to Gingrich spokesman Mr. Blankley in a casual conversation prior to her appointment.

Mr. Bonior said yesterday, "The question remains, when did Mr. Gingrich know about her extremist views?"

Mr. Blankley said "it is not true" that he knew of Ms. Jeffrey's explosive statement regarding the Holocaust course.

Had he known, Mr. Blankley said, "I would have leaped out of my chair and would have done what we did this week."

Mr. Bonior said the mounting controversies, including the book contract, are taking the Republicans "off message."

"It's not the contract they want to be discussing," he said, alluding to the GOP "Contract with America."

Mr. Bonior also noted a report that Mr. Gingrich, whose GOP agenda calls for cuts in committee staffs and operations throughout the House, has increased the budget for the speaker's office -- his own office -- by $600,000.

Mr. Blankley did not deny the report, but said the overall amount spent by the GOP leadership -- which includes the majority leader and others -- was the same as what the Democrats had spent last year, when they controlled the House.

"The money was moved around within the leadership offices," he said.

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