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Some Counts Against Gingrich Dropped, but Ethics Probes Continue

September 29, 1996|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee decided on Saturday to dismiss several complaints against Speaker Newt Gingrich but voted to continue investigating charges that he received prohibited gifts and illegal campaign contributions.

At the same time, the panel dismissed a complaint that House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri had violated tax and banking laws in connection with rental income generated from vacation property he owns in North Carolina.

The Ethics Committee chided Gephardt, however, for tardy and incomplete handling of financial disclosure requirements.

The announcement on Gingrich, coming on the final weekend before the House adjourns for the November elections, is separate from an ongoing probe of potential tax violations involving the Georgia Republican's involvement in a controversial college course. On Thursday, an investigative subcommittee of the ethics panel voted to broaden that investigation to include whether the speaker had lied to the full committee about the course.

Of the myriad allegations filed against Gingrich by Democrats during the 104th Congress, the Ethics Committee has concluded work on eight cases. It has referred a ninth case to a special counsel for an expanded inquiry and now will continue to scrutinize details stemming from a 10th complaint.

The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats has disposed of the eight cases without recommending any form of disciplinary action against Gingrich. But the committee also has rebuked the speaker several times for violating House rules and misusing official resources.

The committee action on Saturday concerned a complaint, filed in January by Democrats, seeking an extensive investigation of Gingrich's activities when he served as chairman of GOPAC, a political action committee that engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections.

The panel tossed out portions of the complaint that accused Gingrich of violating bribery and gratuity laws by intervening on behalf of charter GOPAC members in exchange for large political donations.

Gingrich had sought dismissal of all counts but the committee decided to continue to pursue allegations that the speaker received illegal contributions from GOPAC and accepted $250,000 in GOPAC funds for personal use.

Democrats, focusing on the decision to continue part of the inquiry, portrayed Saturday's action as significant because it marked the first time the committee agreed to examine Gingrich's activities as chairman of GOPAC. Republicans, on the other hand, focused on the dismissal of some counts, citing the action as yet another indication that the Democrats' charges against Gingrich are baseless.

The complaint against Gephardt, filed in February by Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), alleged tax and banking-law violations in connection with rental income generated from Gephardt's vacation property. Dunn also questioned whether Gephardt spent campaign money for personal use.

While dismissing the complaint, the ethics panel criticized Gephardt for his failure to disclose financial information about his second home as required by House rules. On Friday, Gephardt amended his 1991 and 1992 economic-interest statements to report income between $25,000 and $50,000 on the vacation property.

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Under disclosure rules, members of Congress need only specify the range within which a particular piece of income falls, not the exact amount.

It a letter to Gephardt, the committee said:

"You have disclosed this income to the Committee more than three years after the original disclosure form was filed and only after a complaint was filed against you in connection with this matter.

"The Committee expects you will be more diligent in the future and adhere strictly to the requirement to file timely and accurate financial disclosure statements."

Technically, the committee's decision to pursue the question of whether Gingrich engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of Congress in his dealings with GOPAC means only that the panel is continuing to work on the case.

But House Minority Whip David E. Bonoir (D-Mich.) asserted that the committee's announcement "dealt another crippling blow" to Gingrich's term as speaker. "The Ethics Committee is moving forward on the allegations that Newt Gingrich used GOPAC as his personal political slush fund."

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But Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley characterized the committee's action as proof that the Democrats' charges are without merit. "I find it remarkable and slightly pathetic that the Democratic Party's sole strategy for regaining control of the House has been to attempt to destroy Newt by filing bogus ethics allegations against him."

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), noted Saturday that her panel has concluded work on more cases than any Ethics Committee in the history of the House.

"The ethics process has too often been the football field on which personal animosities and ideological differences have been played out," Johnson said.

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