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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Newt Investigation

From the depths of Rep. Nancy Johnson’s House Ethics Committee has leaked the following news: the Ethics Committee staff has prepared a list of seven attorneys who might serve as outside counsels to investigate the charges against House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Finally.

Gingrich is faced with an array of charges, including misuse of tax-deductible dollars for partisan purposes, and conflict-of­-interest charges stemming from his book contract with Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins Publishers.

According to an August 30th article in the New York Daily News, the Ethics Committee is trying to determine whether Gingrich’s recent highly profitable book was developed from Gingrich’s taxpayer-subsidized video political training course, and whether the taxpayer-subsidized course was a vehicle to raise funds for political activities.

Even in 1994, it was clear that the charges about Gingrich’s course were serious. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, on October 31, 1994, the House Ethics Committee’s senior Republican and Democrat informed Gingrich that the evidence already submitted might justify a claim that Gingrich had “improperly used tax-exempt foundations to obtain taxpayer subsidization of political activity.”

In every major ethics case since 1979, the House Ethics Committee has appointed an outside counsel to investigate the charges. Appointing an outside counsel to perform the investigation is very important, because it greatly increases the likelihood of a fair, thorough, and impartial investigation. Outside counsels prevent whitewashes.

But Gingrich has steadfastly opposed the appointment of outside counsel to investigate him. And he calls the charges against him “baseless and malicious.”

But finally, after months of torpor, delay and foot-dragging, the House Ethics Committee and its Chairwoman, Rep. Nancy Johnson, appear to have reached the conclusion that there ought to be an independent investigation of the powerful Speaker Gingrich after all. The New York Daily News article quotes an unnamed Ethics Committee source: “We’ve narrowed the investigation and are considering possible outside counsels.”

That’s partially news. But the battle to win a thorough and impartial investigation of the Speaker is not yet won. Why not? The best way to explain this is to recall the days when Gingrich himself was trying to win an outside counsel to investigate then Speaker Jim Wright who later resigned.

At the end of July 1988, Gingrich was worried that the House Ethics Committee had narrowed the focus of the independent investigation of Wright so much that tome of the important charges would never be investigated. So, Gingrich wrote a letter to then-Chairman of the Ethics Committee Julian Dixon:

“First, I am concerned that the scope, authority, and independence of the special counsel will be limited by the guidelines the Ethics Committee has established.” Gingrich urged the Ethics Committee to “commit itself to the following measures,” including, “The outside counsel shall have full authority to investigate and present evidence and arguments…concerning questions arising out of the activities of House Speaker James C. Wright, Jr…I am particularly concerned that [three charges]…will not be investigated.”

Gingrich continued “I believe many will perceive this action as an attempt by the Ethics Committee to control the scope and direction of the investigation…The House of Representatives, as well as the American public, deserve an investigation which will uncover the truth. At this moment, I am afraid that the apparent restriction placed on this special counsel will not allow the truth to be uncovered.”

That’s the Gingrich standard: no restrictions on the scope of the investigation. He wanted to ensure that an outside counsel could follow any plausible lead or trail of wrongdoing.

Now here’s the big question: will the Connecticut Republican, chairperson Nancy Johnson, hold the investigation of her fellow Republican, Newt Gingrich, to the Gingrich standard? Or will she narrow the scope of the investigation to so shelter Speaker Gingrich from a fair, thorough, and impartial investigation that a whitewash of her colleague becomes the likelihood?