Partisan or not, Democrats can justify Gingrich probe


WASHINGTON -- Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich complains that the Democrats have partisan motives in pressing for a special investigation into whether he has violated ethical standards.

He's right about that. The Democrats would love nothing better than to discredit Gingrich, send him packing back to Georgia and regain control of the House next year.

There is also, as he suggests, an element of personal vendetta. Many of these liberal Democrats despise Gingrich in a way that goes far beyond the bounds of ordinary political hostility.

But whatever their motives, the Democrats have been handed enough evidence -- largely uncovered by a few reporters -- raising questions about Gingrich's ethical behavior to justify the choice of some outside special counsel to investigate. If it doesn't happen, the only inference the voters can draw is that the politicians here are playing the same old self-protective games even with all these morally correct Republicans in charge.

The case against Gingrich has been made largely by David E. ZTC Bonior, the Democratic whip in the House. And it has been given only sporadic and modest attention by the press. There has been some predictable suspicion in the political community that the charges may be no more than an attempt to pay Gingrich in kind for the campaign he conducted six years ago that resulted in the resignation of then-Speaker Jim Wright of Texas.

Moreover, there is always some doubt about the ability of liberals to make such a case with enthusiasm. They are too inclined, the theory goes, to question their own motives and find extenuating circumstances that weaken their arguments.

But veteran House Democrats deny that there is any such hesitancy in this case. "Not with him," says Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "People disrespect him sufficiently so that isn't true."

"I think this time's different," says Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, another liberal veteran. The shock of losing the House and the aggressive militancy of the new Republican majority "has really energized us," he says.

Some Democrats say the appearance of a low priority for the ethics case is, as Bonior insists, totally misleading. "We've been handed these issues like feeding children," says one. "When we've finished with that, the ethics stuff will be back on the front burner. The leadership is very serious about this."

The normal channel for pursuing the case would be the House Ethics Committee, but it is headed by Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a moderate whose support for Gingrich was critical to his rise to power when he was elected Republican whip. No one questions Johnson's integrity, but the appearance problem is obvious.

The result is that Democrats are pressing the committee for an independent counsel, for which there is ample precedent. They are quick to remind everyone that when Gingrich was pursuing Wright he argued that because the case involved an official third in line for the presidency, it required "a higher standard of public accountability and integrity." What goes around comes around is still the rule in politics.

The complaints against Gingrich are not easy to understand. This is not just a case of some politician taking a cash payoff in exchange for his help. But there are legitimate questions about that $4.5 million book deal with a publisher controlled by Rupert Murdoch, who has issues before the federal government. The speaker has passed up the advance for a different kind of royalty, but there is still the prospect of substantial money changing hands.

There are also questions about the roles of a Gingrich political action committee, GOPAC, and his tax-exempt Progress and Freedom Foundation. And there are questions about whether Gingrich has received a benefit estimated at $200,000 from a cable television company carrying a college course he taught to a national audience.

There are questions, too, about whether Gingrich has interceded with government agencies on behalf of a pharmaceutical company that contributed to his foundation. And there are others about whether he crossed some ethical line in promoting his television course on the House floor.

It may be, as Gingrich insists, that all of these questions can be answered in a way that clears him of any suspicion. But if that isn't done by an independent inquiry, who's going to buy it?

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