Speaker of the House Acted Carelessly
COMMENTARY: Even though Newt Gingrich was re-elected last week to an office he previously tried to keep clean, two incidents from his past threaten to weaken both the office of speaker and his own political future

UCSD Guardian Opinion
January 13, 1997

It is amazing how quickly the tide of political scandal has changed. For the past four years the Republicans have tried their best to catch Bill Clinton doing something wrong. How ironic it is to see one of the Republicans' own leaders caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

A recent investigation by a House ethics subcommittee found that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich may have misused tax-exempt funds for political purposes and "misled" the subcommittee in its investigation of one of the numerous complaints filed against him.

His problems began when he served as House minority whip and chairman of the chief fundraising organization of the Republican Party, GOPAC. It appears that Gingrich may have used non-profit, tax-exempt organizations to advance the agenda of the Republican Party. The first alleged violation occurred in 1990, when GOPAC used a tax-exempt organization, with Gingrich's knowledge and approval, to fund one of GOPAC's programs.

The second case involves a college course Gingrich taught, funded by tax-exempt organizations. Documents, including letters, memos and transcripts of discussions made by Gingrich, prove that Gingrich used the course for political purposes by selling recordings of his lectures and other class materials as a part of GOPAC's fundraising.

The Internal Revenue Code clearly states that tax-exempt organizations cannot participate in political activities or provide support to political action committees such as GOPAC.

While the Ethics subcommittee did not find any violation of the Internal Revenue Code, it did report that Gingrich should have sought legal counsel to investigate the propriety of using tax-exempt funds for such purposes.

During the investigation into this matter by the Ethics subcommittee, however, Gingrich committed an error more serious than mere abuse of tax-exempt organizations. Gingrich misled the subcommittee by submitting, through his lawyer, several documents that claimed that GOPAC had no involvement in the development and management of the courses he taught.

This claim was disproved via a bevy of memos, documents, conversations and interviews that directly linked the course to GOPAC. For this act of misleading the subcommittee, Gingrich was found to have not conducted himself "in a manner which shall reflect credibility on the House of Representatives."

Last month, Gingrich accepted the finding of the House Ethics Investigative Subcommittee that he should have sought legal advice about funding a college class that he taught. In addition, Gingrich admitted that he provided inaccurate and misleading information to the subcommittee. This admission has hurt Gingrich's already tarnished reputation.

For the subcommittee to say that Gingrich should merely have sat down and thought this violation out before he acted is to flout the law that the committee is supposed to be upholding. The law clearly states that tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to take advantage of their status by supporting a political party.

Gingrich did in fact violate the tax code numerous times and should be held accountable for his actions, even if he was not aware of his transgressions.

It is also very hard to accept that an ethics committee considers it acceptable for Gingrich to use a publicly funded college course for the primary purpose of promoting Republican ideals. The people who sat in Gingrich's classes were unwitting pawns in this shameless attempt to promote the Republican party at the public's expense.

The argument made by Gingrich that the course was non-partisan does not hold water. GOPAC had an instrumental part in the development and the management of the course. For example, the name of the course, "Renewing American Civilization," is the same as a political group that Gingrich founded (and GOPAC supported). In fact, documents and statements made by Gingrich cite the class as an integral part of a plan to obtain control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats and "make the government accountable again."

When the documents submitted by Gingrich to the subcommittee turned out to be erroneous, Gingrich blamed his lawyer, who resigned in anger. Gingrich then tried to dismiss the situation as an oversight.

Gingrich's detractors accuse him of lying, while his supporters claim that it was a simple mistake. Considering that the latter possibility may be true, his supporters must think that Gingrich is either very stupid or did not read the documents he filed with the committee. According to the report published by the subcommittee, Gingrich reviewed and signed the submissions before his lawyer presented them to the committee.

It's possible that Gingrich "accidentally" skipped over the parts that "misled" the subcommittee. However, it seems much more likely that Gingrich made those statements not thinking that they would be harmful if discovered, and later tried to salvage the situation by blaming his legal counsel.

Gingrich, after a solid start with the "Contract With America," has finally had his past catch up to him. The Ethics Committee must decide what punishment to give Gingrich. At the very least, it should be a letter of reprimand from the committee. At the most, it should be a call to the House to prescribe punishment.

In a sense, all this is poetic justice for Newt Gingrich. In the 1980's, Gingrich was successful in his crusade to oust Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Democrat, for Wright's ethics transgressions. Gingrich must realize that "public office is a public trust" and begin to act responsibly. He must learn to bear the office of Speaker of the House with more dignity and accountability.