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As FBI Probes Tape of Gop, Democrat Quits Committee

By John E. Yang
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the House ethics committee's top Democrat, said Tuesday he would recuse himself from the case of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), as controversy escalated over his alleged involvement in disseminating a tape of an intercepted Gingrich telephone call.

The FBI said it has begun a criminal investigation of how the conversation came to be taped. In a stinging parting shot, McDermott blasted the panel's probe of Gingrich as a "charade" and the chairmanship of Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) as "arbitrary, authoritarian, and autocratic." He never mentioned his role in the disclosure of the taped telephone conversation beyond a passing reference to "the present controversy."

McDermott said he would recuse himself from the Gingrich case as soon as he was assured the panel would remain evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Ethics committee Republicans and Democrats said they expected an agreement.

"We're not interested in having a partisan advantage on the ethics committee, and I'm sure that we won't," said House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio).

The most likely outcome will be that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who joined the panel last week to replace Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), will also recuse himself, leaving the committee with four Republicans and four Democrats, House officials said.

While Boehner has called on McDermott to quit the House, the Washington Democrat could face more serious problems. The FBI opened an inquiry Tuesday into the "possible illegal telephone interception and the subsequent dissemination of the contents of the telephone call," FBI Director Louis J. Freeh wrote House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Last Friday The New York Times published a partial transcript of a Dec. 21 conference call among Gingrich and GOP leaders discussing how to limit the political and media damage from his admission that day that he broke House rules. The Times said the conversation had been recorded by "people in Florida" who intercepted it on a police scanner and turned it over to an unnamed House Democrat.

It is a federal crime to "intentionally intercept" telephone calls or to "intentionally disclose" their contents if a person knows the information has been intercepted.

In addition to whatever legal difficulties McDermott may face, he is almost certain to be the subject of an ethics complaint from a GOP lawmaker, and participants in the conference call are discussing a civil suit in the case, according to Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.).

Asked in Georgia about McDermott's announcement, Gingrich told reporters: "I think that's his decision, but certainly, members of Congress shouldn't break the law."

As part of a two-year investigation of Gingrich's financing of a college course he taught, the ethics committee concluded last month that he broke House rules.

GOP leaders suggested that McDermott's apparent involvement in the leaking of the taped telephone conference call had changed the dynamic of Tuesday's vote on punishing Gingrich. Instead of wondering whether Democrats would have enough votes to make stricter whatever punishment the ethics committee recommends, House GOP leaders are talking about the possibility of having the votes to make it weaker.

Democratic leaders scoffed at the suggestion. "I don't see any connection," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.).

Fazio also denounced Johnson as "a key component in the orchestrated coverup of Speaker Gingrich's admitted violation of House rules" for abruptly and unilaterally changing the panel's agreed hearing schedule last week. Fazio said he would ask to House to condemn her "abuse of authority" on Tuesday.

Next Tuesday is the day the House is to vote on the ethics committee's recommendation of how to punish Gingrich. The panel is to propose a sanction after considering the written report of special counsel James M. Cole, due to be issued Thursday, and what is likely to be at least two days of televised hearings airing the committee's case against the speaker late this week.

Paxon called on House Democratic leaders to say what and when they knew about the tape. "The onus is on the Democratic leadership to police their ranks," he said.