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Federal Judge Dismisses Suit Against Gingrich PAC

By Alan C. Miller
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

A federal district court judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday charging that a Republican political committee headed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich violated federal restrictions by spending large sums six years ago to elect GOP congressional candidates.

The suit, filed by the Federal Election Commission, sought to compel the GOP Action Committee, or GOPAC, to disclose the sources and disposition of more than $500,000 in contributions in the 1989-90 election cycle. The FEC contended that the money was spent to influence federal elections at a time when GOPAC was prohibited from such activities because it had not registered as a federal political action committee.

But U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer concurred with GOPAC's claim that it had directly assisted only state and local candidates and therefore was not a federal PAC. The judge also rejected the election watchdog agency's assertion that GOPAC spent at least $250,000 for consultants' salaries, travel costs and other "Newt support" in 1990 to re-elect Gingrich, a Georgia Republican.

Oberdorfer's action, which had been sought by GOPAC, was a major victory for Gingrich. But he still faces an inquiry by James M. Cole, the special counsel appointed by the House ethics committee to probe allegations that Gingrich improperly used tax-deductible donations to finance his teaching of a college course, and additional complaints before the ethics panel.

"The fact is we obey the law," Gingrich told reporters at the Capitol. "We're trying to do what's right and I think this is a very good day for free speech. It's a very good day for the political process."

A spokesman for the FEC said the bipartisan agency had not decided whether to appeal Oberdorfer's decision. "We're pretty disappointed," spokesman Ron Harris said.

In his 32-page ruling, Oberdorfer said that it was undisputed that "GOPAC's ultimate major purpose was to influence the election of Republican candidates for the House of Representatives" by recruiting, training and funding strong local and state candidates with the expectation that they would seek higher office in the future.

But, he added, "GOPAC's immediate major purpose in 1989 and 1990 was to elect state and local candidates and to develop ideas and circulate them generally to Republican Party candidates and supporters."

GOPAC distributed some of its materials to federal candidates, among others, in 1990, Oberdorfer said, "but the distribution was not targeted to federal candidates." Moreover, he said, "GOPAC did not make any direct contribution to any particular federal candidate."

Although documents submitted by the FEC quote GOPAC officials as discussing steps "to inoculate Newt Gingrich from Democratic attacks" and targeting Georgia during the 1989-90 election cycle in part "to protect Congressman Newt Gingrich" during the redrawing of congressional districts, Oberdorfer said that the FEC offered no evidence that any aid provided to Gingrich as GOPAC chairman was used "to support his re-election campaign."

Gingrich, who narrowly won a seventh term in 1990, stepped down as GOPAC general chairman last year. The political committee was considered a vehicle to enhance Gingrich's stature and help elect the first Republican House majority in 40 years in 1994.

"From the beginning, this case has been about an effort by the Washington establishment to discredit those who have contributed to the realignment and shift in American politics that has been under way since the late 1980s," GOPAC said in a prepared statement.

House Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., Gingrich's chief ethics nemesis, maintained that Oberdorfer's decision "raises more questions than it answers."

"GOPAC documents make repeated references that $250,000 a year was spent on Newt support. If this wasn't a direct contribution to Mr. Gingrich's re-election campaign, then what was it?" Bonior asked in a news release.

The FEC's 2-year-old lawsuit was based on a complaint filed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1990. The following year, the FEC found reason to believe that GOPAC had improperly failed to register as a federal PAC. GOPAC did so the following day, but declared that only a small portion of its funds were spent on federal elections.

In addition to requiring PACs to reveal their funding sources and spending, federal election law limits individual contributions to a candidate to a maximum of $1,000 per election and political action committees to $5,000. GOPAC, which did not regard itself as a federal PAC, set $10,000 as the minimum annual donation for charter members.