WASHINGTON — After two years of vehemently denying wrongdoing, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made an about-face Saturday and admitted that he had violated House rules in connection with several tax-exempt charitable organizations and had also provided "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information to the Ethics Committee.
Gingrich's admission of wrongdoing in a case he had once dismissed as a "fishing expedition" came after the ethics panel's investigative subcommittee criticized the powerful speaker for improperly using the charitable organizations for partisan ends and not leveling with the committee in responses to its inquiries.
By agreeing that he did not act "at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives," the Georgia Republican avoided an embarrassing fact-finding hearing before the full House Standards of Official Conduct Committee. But that does not put an end to the matter. With the Ethics Committee now taking up the question of what sanctions to impose, the controversy will continue to cast a shadow over Gingrich's effort to win reelection as speaker when the House begins its new session next month.
The 10-member bipartisan panel will deliberate on the sanctions issue behind closed doors, then present a recommendation to the full House for final action. Gingrich could be reprimanded, censured, fined or even expelled from the House, though expulsion is not considered likely. The panel could also recommend no action at all.
"I was overconfident, and in some ways, naive," a chastened Gingrich said in a statement that admitted wrongdoing but still attempted to reduce personal blame. "I did not seek legal counsel when I should have in order to ensure clear compliance with all applicable laws, and that was wrong. Because I did not, I brought down on the people's House a controversy which could weaken the faith people have in their government."
In addition, Gingrich said in his statement: "In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to [the] committee, but I did not intend to mislead the committee."
Gingrich has worked feverishly behind the scenes in recent days to strike a deal with the committee before the Jan. 7 House vote on the speakership.
Even with his admission of wrongdoing, however, it remained unclear Saturday whether the committee would move to impose sanctions before the vote.
Although the Capitol itself was largely empty Saturday, with most lawmakers--Gingrich included--home for the holidays, reaction to the speaker's plea was swift. Democrats called on him to step down from his leadership post, just as Gingrich had demanded of former House Speaker Jim Wright before he resigned in 1989.
"The speaker should step down as speaker of the House of Representatives and allow his colleagues in the majority party to elect a new speaker on the 7th of January," said House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.).
Republicans, meanwhile, rallied around Gingrich in an attempt to minimize the political damage.
"It should be noted, and is clear, he did not seek nor intend to mislead the committee. We look forward to working with him as speaker following his reelection on Jan. 7," said a joint statement issued by House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner of Ohio and four other GOP leaders.
Despite that show of unity, there remained some signs of strain within the party.
Rep. Peter T. King of New York, a Republican who has expressed concern about the charges, said it is essential to determine whether Gingrich intentionally, or unwittingly, submitted false information to the ethics panel.
"If it was an honest mistake, I think most members of Congress can understand that," King said. ". . . If members conclude this was done intentionally, then that would be very serious."
At the center of the investigation has been "Renewing American Civilization," a college course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 with financial support from the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a tax-exempt organization, and GOPAC, a political action committee Gingrich once headed.
The investigation focused on whether the course's content was so partisan that it could not properly be financed with tax-exempt contributions.
The ethics panel authorized Gingrich to teach the course after he filed a May 12, 1993, letter disclosing that he would be teaching a Saturday morning class at Kennesaw State College in Georgia.
He failed to disclose in the letter, however, that the course would be televised nationally, filled with partisan themes and financed by the nonprofit organization and political action committee.
The subcommittee found that the college course and three television programs were political in nature and should not have qualified for tax-deductible donations.