Questions continue about how Gingrich should pay his fine Some say speaker should pay proposed $300,000 out of personal funds

January 21, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON REPORTER-RESEARCHER ROBERT GEE AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich is slated today to become the first House speaker in the history of the nation to be punished by his colleagues, but questions continue to swirl about how he should make amends.

Two members of the House ethics committee -- the Republican chairwoman, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, and the senior Democrat, Baltimore's Benjamin L. Cardin -- say Gingrich should pay all or part of the proposed $300,000 penalty with his own money.

If the speaker relies on campaign funds, "it just looks horrible," said Cardin in an interview yesterday. "The public could not understand that."

Gingrich should not use campaign money to pay the full amount, Johnson told CNN on Sunday. He needs to "take personal responsibility for his actions," she said.

Gingrich's attorney, J. Randolph Evans, said yesterday that Gingrich would decide in the next two weeks whether to pay the money out of his pocket, from campaign funds or by some other means, presumably a fund-raiser or something akin to a legal defense fund.

On Friday, the ethics committee voted to recommend that Gingrich be reprimanded for using tax-exempt charitable contributions for partisan political activities and for giving the panel inaccurate information about it.

The panel recommended the $300,000 penalty to help pay for the extra time it took to investigate the case because of the misleading information. The subcommittee recommended the penalty to show that Gingrich's violations of House rules deserved something more than a reprimand but less than the more serious censure. The panel, however, did not specify how the money should be paid. Had Gingrich been censured, it would have been even more embarrassing. He would have been forced to stand in the well of the House as he was publicly scolded on national television. He also would have almost certainly been forced to give up his job as speaker.

A reprimand, by contrast, is a simpler and far less public punishment. The House will vote tomorrow and Gingrich does not even have to be in the chamber at the time.

Republican members of the Maryland delegation were divided yesterday on how they thought the speaker should pay the penalty. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County said Gingrich faced a no-win situation.

If he pays for it out of his own pocket, it will hurt him financially, said Ehrlich. If he uses a fund-raiser or a legal defense fund, people will wonder if he may do favors for those who contribute. And if he uses campaign funds, he could alienate his constituents, Ehrlich said.

"People don't give you money for your campaign to pay fines," said Ehrlich. "They give you money to get re-elected."

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, thought Gingrich should pay the penalty himself to set an example. By showing that members take responsibility for the costs incurred by the ethics committee, Gingrich could encourage a system under which those who file frivolous complaints would also be forced to pay expenses.

"If Newt pays for it himself, he sets a very strong precedent," DTC said Gilchrest, echoing the sentiments of many Republicans who feel that the ethics complaints filed against Gingrich by Democrats were politically motivated.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland didn't think Gingrich should have to pay with his own money and complained that the speaker was being subjected to a double standard. If Gingrich has to use his own cash, then President Clinton shouldn't be allowed to use a legal defense fund to pay for his various legal troubles, Bartlett said.

"Don't you think we need an element of fairness here?" the congressman asked.

The fourth GOP member of the state's House delegation, Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, could not be reached for comment.

Gingrich shouldn't have any trouble making payment if he uses campaign money. As of November, he had a little more than $1 million in his campaign treasury, according to Federal Election Commission records.

If he turns to his own bank account, paying the penalty could be more difficult. Gingrich, a former college professor, earns $171,000 a year as speaker. In 1995, he had a one-time windfall when he made about $423,000 net profit in book royalties.

He and his wife live in a rented one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. In October 1994 they bought a house in his suburban Atlanta district.

"He's not a wealthy person," said Ehrlich. "So, it's quite a penalty."

Pub Date: 1/21/97

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