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House Approves Reprimand, $300,000 Fine for Gingrich

By John E. Yang
The Washington Post

The House on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to reprimand House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and order him to pay an unprecedented $300,000 penalty, the first time in the House's 208-year history it has disciplined a speaker for ethical wrongdoing.

The ethics case and its resolution leaves Gingrich with little leeway for future personal controversies, House Republicans said. Exactly one month ago, Gingrich admitted that he had brought discredit to the House and broken its rules by failing to ensure that financing for two projects would not violate federal tax law and by giving the House ethics committee false information.

"Newt has done some things that have embarrassed House Republicans and embarrassed the House," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). "If (the voters) see more of that, they will question our judgment."

House Democrats are likely to continue to press other ethics charges against Gingrich, and the Internal Revenue Service is looking into matters related to the case that came to an end Tuesday.

The 395-to-28 vote closes a tumultuous chapter that began Sept. 7, 1994, when former representative Ben Jones (D-Ga.), then running against Gingrich, filed an ethics complaint against the then-GOP whip. The complaint took on greater significance when the GOP took control of the House for the first time in four decades, propelling Gingrich into the speaker's chair.

With so much at stake for each side - the survival of the GOP's speaker and the Democrats' hopes of regaining control of the House - partisanship strained the ethics process nearly to the breaking point.

All but two of the votes against the punishment were cast by Republicans, many of whom said they believed the sanction - especially the financial penalty - was too severe.

Two Democrats, Reps. Earl F. Hilliard of Alabama and Gene Taylor of Mississippi, voted against the punishment. Taylor said the measure should have specified the $300,000 come from personal funds, not campaign coffers or a legal expense fund. Hilliard did not return telephone calls.

In addition, five Democrats voted "present," many of them saying they believed the sanction was not severe enough. "If Newt Gingrich did what they said he did, he should have been censured," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). A censure, second only in severity to expulsion, would have threatened Gingrich's speakership.

House ethics committee members took pride in Tuesday's bipartisan resolution of the case. But even as they brought the case to a close, committee Republicans and Democrats traded potshots over the chaos of the last two weeks, which saw an agreement for lengthy televised hearing collapse over partisan bickering.

The ethics case added to the last congressional session's fierce partisanship as Democrats sought to embarrass House Republicans with it in last year's elections. Lawmakers in both parties said they hoped the vote to punish Gingrich would help ease those tensions.

"If our action today fails to chasten this body and bring a halt to the crippling partisanship and animosity that has surrounded us, then we will have lost an opportunity," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), ethics committee chairman.

The speaker was barely visible Tuesday, staying away from the House floor during the 90-minute debate and vote on his punishment. He was in his office and did not watch the proceedings on television, according to spokesman Lauren Maddox.

Gingrich left late Tuesday afternoon for a two-day GOP House leadership retreat in Fauquier County, Va. As he left, he was asked if he was glad the case was over. He smiled broadly and said "yes."

House Democrats had considered trying to force a vote Tuesday on reconsidering Gingrich's Jan. 7 re-election as speaker - the first for a Republican in 68 years - but decided against it, fearing it would distract from the harsh punishment being meted out.

In a strongly worded report, special counsel James M. Cole concluded that Gingrich had violated tax law and lied to the committee, but the subcommittee would not go that far. In exchange for the investigative subcommittee's agreeing to modify the charges against him - essentially a plea-bargain agreement - Gingrich agreed to the penalty Dec. 20 as part of a deal in which he admitted guilt.