Gingrich Downplays Bipartisan Ethical Reprimand As "A Nancy Pelosi-Driven Effort"

December 07, 2011 1:00 pm ET — Kate Conway

Now that former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich has waited his way into the lead in the GOP presidential primary race, he's facing the same intense scrutiny that the other short-lived frontrunners endured during their time in the spotlight. Gingrich's long Washington career has plenty of dirt to offer, not least his ethics violations in the '90s, which earned him a reprimand from his congressional colleagues and a $300,000 penalty, both unprecedented for a sitting speaker.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was on the House Ethics subcommittee that investigated Gingrich's violations, suggested in an interview published Monday that at some point she'd "have a conversation about Newt Gingrich" and the information that came out during the investigation. Asked by Fox News host Greta Van Susteren to respond, Gingrich downplayed the charges against him as "a Nancy Pelosi-driven effort" that "related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than to ethics."

GINGRICH: I think what it does is it reminds people who probably didn't know this that she [Pelosi] was on the ethics committee, that it was a very partisan political committee, and that the way I was dealt with related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than to ethics. And I think in that sense it actually helps me in getting people to understand this was a Nancy Pelosi-driven effort. They filed 85 charges. Eighty-four were dismissed. The only that was a conflicting lawyers' letter, and then Democrats just held out for partisan reasons.

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The problem with Gingrich's attempt to dismiss the ethics episode as nothing more than a partisan attack on a standup Republican leader is that both the Ethics Committee and the subcommittee responsible for the investigation were bipartisan — and chaired by Republicans. Then-Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-CT), head of the Ethics Committee at the time, believed strongly that Gingrich's actions justified the panel's recommendation:

"This is a tough penalty," Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), chairman of the ethics panel, said after the vote. "I believe it is an appropriate penalty. It demonstrates that nobody is above the rules."

When the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted to go ahead with the reprimand and fine, it broke down 395 in favor to 28 against. Rep. Porter J. Goss (FL), the Republican head of the investigating subcommittee, said of the House-wide vote: "We have proved to the American people that no matter how rough the process is, we can police ourselves, we do know right from wrong."

On top of all that, the penalty ultimately recommended for Gingrich was a compromise — some believed there was evidence of far more serious violations than the "intentional" or "reckless" treatment of House rules for which he was condemned. A special counsel to the committee concluded that Gingrich had both broken federal tax law and lied to the Ethics Committee about it. Nevertheless, in order to expedite the proceedings and avoid months of "turmoil," multiple counts against Gingrich were combined during negotiations with the speaker:

[Special counsel James M.] Cole disclosed that in its original statement of alleged violations, the investigative subcommittee had charged Gingrich with three counts of violating House rules, two for having failed to seek proper legal advice on the tax laws and one for providing the committee with inaccurate information.

But Cole said committee members were anxious to bring the ethics case to a swift conclusion without a lengthy disciplinary hearing, which he said could have "put the House in some turmoil for up to six months." So the members encouraged him to enter into negotiations with Gingrich and his lawyers.

As a result of those negotiations, completed on Dec. 20, the three counts were combined into a single count of engaging "in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives." In return, Gingrich agreed to admit to the violations, and face a reprimand and the financial penalty.

The mere fact of the Ethics Committee's decision — and the severity of its recommendations — says enough about Gingrich's conduct, regardless of what Pelosi has to say. The strength of the statements from Gingrich's Republican colleagues is the icing on top.

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