With Dole a foreign agent, friendly loan to Gingrich gets more scrutiny

January 14, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- No matter how hard 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole tries to be a friend of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, there seems to be a complication.

As recently reported in Legal Times, the respected weekly on the law and lobbying, Mr. Dole has just registered as a foreign agent for Taiwan as a participant in his law firm's $30,000-a-month account with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office here. The office is regarded as the unofficial Taiwanese Embassy, because the United States does

not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

What all this has to do with Mr. Gingrich is that Mr. Dole's registration under some interpretations could jeopardize his agreement to lend the speaker $150,000 to help pay off the $300,000 penalty assessed against him last year by the House ethics committee in connection with its investigation of him.

Friendly loan

At the time Mr. Dole made his original offer to lend all $300,000 to Mr. Gingrich, later cut in half after negotiations with the ethics committee, the former Senate majority leader stated that he was "not a registered lobbyist and [had] no plans to become one." He assured the committee that he would not "directly or indirectly contact Speaker Gingrich on behalf of any client of the law firm" he had just joined -- Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand of Washington.

John Merrigan, a partner in Mr. Dole's law firm, says that the former senator will not actually lobby Congress in behalf of Taiwan and that, anyway, Mr. Dole's filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act doesn't automatically make him a lobbyist. What Mr. Dole will do, Mr. Merrigan says, is provide "strategic advice and counsel" only.

Christina Martin, spokeswoman for Mr. Gingrich, says the story is "irrelevant" because the agreement with Mr. Dole deals with "a future loan that may or may not be needed," and that "there already is an understanding of how the loan will be replaced if Senator Dole did choose to lobby."

Nevertheless, this development already has key Democratic critics howling for the ethics committee to determine whether it puts Mr. Gingrich in violation of conditions placed on the loan. House Minority Whip David E. Bonior, a one-man hunting party against Mr. Gingrich on alleged ethics violations, has called for an immediate investigation by the committee.

A spokeswoman for the House ethics committee said that from what it has learned "informally" about the matter, it can't be sure whether what Mr. Dole has done is at odds with the provisions of the loan agreement. Mr. Gingrich's spokeswoman says the speaker will do whatever the ethics committee instructs him to do regarding the matter.

bTC This whole business comes at a time when Mr. Gingrich has been getting a bit of unwanted publicity for accepting a weeklong trip to London for himself, his wife and two aides paid for, to the tune of a reported $24,000, by Atlantic Richfield Co. For that payola, Mr. Gingrich sang for his supper at ARCO's annual dinner and met with some British leaders.

Mr. Gingrich's spokesman says the trip was approved in advance by the House ethics committee, but it was dubbed by the Associated Press as "one of the most expensive trips disclosed so far under new rules that let special interests pay for travel for lawmakers."

Meanwhile, some House Republicans continue to grouse about Mr. Gingrich counters to President Clinton's initiatives in the growing debate about how prospective budget surpluses should used. Mr. Gingrich has met Mr. Clinton's smorgasbord of new social-welfare proposals largely with a call for more tax cuts, at a time when polls show voters are no longer clamoring for them.

Defensive posture

While any loss of Mr. Dole's loan probably wouldn't send Mr. Gingrich to the poorhouse, the whole business has given the Democrats more material with which to pester the speaker, keeping him on the defensive. Even if the ethics committee agrees that Mr. Dole isn't violating the no-lobbying agreement, the Democratic dogs can be expected to keep nipping at Mr. Gingrich's heels.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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