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House Panel Delves Further Into Ethics Probe on Gingrich

By John E. Yang
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The House ethics subcommittee investigating Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga)., voted unanimously Thursday to expand its probe and directed its outside counsel to examine whether the speaker provided "accurate, reliable and complete information" to the ethics committee.

The action by the panel of two Republicans and two Democrats represents a significant broadening of the 20-month ethics probe of the speaker and gives James M. Cole, the Washington white-collar criminal attorney who has been assisting the panel, considerably expanded authority to conduct the investigation.

The panel's statement said it was reacting to "certain facts (that) have been discovered in the course of" its inquiry. It did not specify those facts, but noted that it has been reviewing a preliminary report Cole submitted last month.

Since January, Cole has been looking into whether Gingrich violated federal tax law by using tax-deductible charitable contributions to foundations to further a partisan political agenda through a college course he taught.

Thursday, the subcommittee voted to expand its probe to include whether any part of Gingrich's relationship with two tax-exempt foundations similarly violated federal tax law.

While the subcommittee noted that the "scope of the preliminary inquiry has been carefully focused," its new directions to Cole did not limit him in his examination of Gingrich's relationships with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank run by Gingrich allies that help finance the course, and the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, a charitable organization that funded a television "town meeting" featuring Gingrich.

In a statement, Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley said he was "confident the committee will conclude this matter to be groundless."

Democrats had long sought broad authority for the outside counsel. The ethics panel's outside counsel in the Gingrich-initiated investigation that led to the 1989 resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), had wide-ranging authority and developed charges that went well beyond the original charges against Wright.

"This is no longer just a simple investigation - this is a whole new ball game," said House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), Gingrich's chief House antagonist.

Some House Democrats, who have been stepping up their assault on the speaker over the ethics charges as Election Day approaches, called on Gingrich to step aside as speaker until the matter is settled.

"The integrity and the honesty of the speaker of the House has been seriously called into question," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). "The only appropriate course of action for Newt Gingrich is to step aside Until that time a cloud will continue to hang over the House and over the speaker."

The development virtually ensures that the investigation will continue after the November election, although the subcommittee - which has the authority to file formal charges - said it expected to finish its work by early January.

The subcommittee was not responding to any complaint filed against Gingrich when it broadened its investigation, relying instead on an ethics committee rule that allows it to "consider any information in its possession that a Membermay have committed a violation."

Reps. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the subcommittee's chairman, and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., the panel's top Democrat, both left the committee meeting without speaking to reporters. Committee Chairman Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., declined to discuss the committee's action in any detail, saying only to reporters: "We are doing our job."

Gingrich's critics have alleged that GOPAC has been the financial engine for all of his efforts to build a GOP majority in the House. "All roads lead to GOPAC," Bonior said Thursday.

The subcommittee acted as House Democrats have been stepping up the political pressure force the release of Cole's report, charging that Republicans are seeking to suppress it until after the election. Bonior has urged Democratic House challengers to use the issue in their campaigns against GOP lawmakers.

Cole will report his findings to the four-member investigative subcommittee. If at least three subcommittee members agree there is "reason to believe that a violation has occurred," they can draw up formal charges against Gingrich. If that happened, the three Republicans and three Democrats on the ethics committee who are not on the investigative subcommittee would hold hearings.