Here's an interesting piece of trivia: Newt Gingrich aspired as a child to be a zoo keeper. Considering the ethics imbroglio he now finds himself in (again), perhaps he should have avoided the Beltway circus and chosen a more traditional zoological career.
Last week, the House Ethics Committee meted out punishment to Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, for showing a disregard and lack of respect for House rules. That's akin to saying the Dallas Cowboys have a few minor discipline problems.
Several years ago, Gingrich faced an array of accusations of impropriety partly stemming from the whopping $4.5 million advance he accepted for writing "To Renew America." The speaker returned the money, and all but one of the charges were eventually dropped. The ethics committee, however, assigned a special counsel (a growth industry in Washington these days), and one last allegation refused to fade into the political woodwork. Gingrich was accused of financing a politically oriented college course with tax-exempt funds, a dangerous no-no.
Gingrich received permission from the ethics committee in 1993 to teach a class at Kennesaw State College in his congressional district. The course, however, wasn't intended to satisfy undergraduate curriculum requirements or enlighten dazed and confused freshman. Entitled, "Renewing American Civilization," its primary purpose was to recruit, retain and motivate party activists. In a hand-written memorandum, Gingrich claimed the course was a key element of his political activities.
The financing scheme Gingrich engineered is just as repugnant. GOPAC, the political action committee he headed at the time, helped organize, raise money for and market the course to Republican groups. Apparently this is what constitutes financial aid conservatives circles.
In another unexplained twist, a foundation that ran Gingrich's interactive town hall meetings overpayed a GOPAC loan by $42,500. We'll probably never decipher this subterfuge because the accountant responsible refused to step forward, citing a constitutional privilege.
Unfortunately, Gingrich didn't disclose the overpayment to ethics committee lawyers. Small oversight, you say? Well, not likely. The Georgian representative made false statements in letters sent by his lawyer in December 1994 and March 1995 maintaining that GOPAC was not involved in the course, and the course did not benefit the political organization. He continued his defense until last October, repeating to the ethics committee that the letters were accurate.
Then he made a dramatic reversal after the veracity of his answers was repeatedly called into question. He admitted to turning over false information to committee investigators. Oops. Seeking to put the best possible spin on the debacle, Gingrich's defense attorneys characterized his statements as glaringly inconsistent. Gingrich himself also acknowledged that he supplied investigators with inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable information. Hmmm. Apparently that's what we call lying nowadays.
In his defense, Gingrich claimed he wasn't fully cognizant of the rules. But James Cole, the special counsel, dismissed that argument: "The speaker ran a lot of very yellow lights, some orange lights, and there were bells and whistles going off. There were warnings given to him along the way."
Gingrich's defense attorney, Ed Bethune, appealed to the American public, "He means to do the right thing." He continued prospecting for pity, saying, "Newt has been the most investigated man that has ever come through Congress."
How crass. Is this a surprise, though? It almost has the same ring as Nixon pleading "I am not a crook."
The worst part of this fiasco is that Gingrich is still the speaker. Nancy Johnson, the ethics committee chairwoman, maintained, "The committee's decision will be guided by its belief that the speaker of the House must be held to the highest ethical standards. No one is above the rules of the House."
Not exactly. Amidst a preponderance of evidence, the House Ethics Committee voted 7-1 to reprimand Gingrich. With a mere reprimand, however, the speaker can maintain his role and continue his duties. Although this penalty is unprecedented for a speaker (it is the most severe in the three-decade history of the modern-day ethics code), it doesn't go far enough. The committee should have voted for censure.
The relatively light wrist slap Gingrich received demonstrated once again that in the Beltway, the rules are meant to be broken. As George Orwell, author of "Animal Farm," said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Always the philosopher, Gingrich reflected on the nature of scandal and corruption in an 1995 interview. "I think the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien caught it perfectly. Any of us who carries the ring of power is weakened by its possession. Any of us runs the risk of corruption. And anyone who thinks they don't misunderstands their own humanness."
Although he has taught bogus classes, Gingrich is a professor of history with several books to his credit. History, humph.
How quickly Gingrich forgets that he was former House Speaker Jim Wright's, D-Tex., most vocal critic. Thanks in large part to his tireless prosecutorial powers, Wright resigned under a cloud of suspicion after a lengthy and distinguished career in the House. It seems only fitting that Gingrich now stands on the other side of the aisle.
Greg Lauer's column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.