December 6, 2011

Gingrich socked with 'most severe penalty' as Speaker by ethics panel

With former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rocketing to the top of the polls in the Republican presidential race, it may be a good time to look back on a story that consumed the area's GOP congresswoman for a couple of years during his tenure as a congressional leader.

Here is a story that ran in The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald when U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, a New Britain Republican, got the House to sanction and fine Gingrich over an ethics violation:

January 21, 1997


After a plea from Rep. Nancy Johnson to put aside ''the crippling partisanship and animosity that has surrounded us,'' the House Tuesday overwhelmingly backed her ethics committee's reprimand and $300,000 fine for Speaker Newt Gingrich.

''It is the most severe penalty ever against a sitting speaker,'' said Johnson. ''It is also appropriate. No one is above the rules of the House of Representatives.''

Her colleagues voted 395-28 to sanction Gingrich for his admitted ethical lapses. But the move won't force the speaker to give up his post.

The bipartisan decision Tuesday capped a two-year battle over Gingrich's conduct that often dissolved into political feuding of startling dimensions - including bare-knuckled battles in Johnson's northwestern Connecticut district.

Johnson, a New Britain Republican, called on lawmakers ''to learn and grow from this solemn occasion'' and ''end the partisan rancor that has come to surround this case and this House.''

Though other charges against Gingrich remain on the ethics committee's agenda, Johnson will no longer have to deal with them. She finished up her service on the panel Tuesday.

Johnson said her panel ''found that Rep. Gingrich brought discredit to the House by failing to get appropriate legal advice to ensure that his actions would be in compliance with tax law and to oversee the development of his letters to the committee to insure they were accurate in every respect.''

''Each member of Congress, especially those in positions of leadership, shoulders the responsibility of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety,'' she said. ''Rep. Gingrich failed to exercise the discipline and caution of his office and so is subject to penalty today.''

Johnson pointed out that the ethics panel has never before reprimanded a member for making false statement to it unless it found an intent to mislead. In Gingrich's case, it stopped just short of saying he knowingly lied.

Monetary sanctions have never before been slapped on a member who was not personally enriched by his actions, said Johnson, adding that no findings indicated Gingrich made any money from his political dealings.

Johnson said her committee never lost sight of the need for ''full and complete disclosure of every fact in this case and a bipartisan recommendation. We accomplished both, even though it would have been easy for Republicans or Democrats to walk away from the process at many stages. We didn't because we believe in this institution and in the ethics process.''

The ethics committee ''was forced to conduct its work against a harsh backdrop of political warfare,'' said Johnson.

''It's the first time ever that members of the ethics committee have been the target of coordinated partisan assaults in their districts. Coordinated political pressure on members of the ethics committee by other members is not only destructive of the ethics oversight process but it is beneath the dignity of this great institution and those who serve here,'' Johnson said.

Johnson has come under withering criticism from two potential opponents in 1998 for her handling of the case. They say she delayed proceedings and sought to help Gingrich survive the probe.

But Johnson has frequently praised her committee's work and taken credit for pushing the case to completion despite the atmospherics surrounding it.

Johnson called on legislators before Tuesday's vote to reject ''the partisanship and animosity that has so deeply permeated the work of the House'' and back the ethics recommendation.

''We cannot afford the harsh partisanship that has become too much a part of our lives,'' Johnson said.

Johnson, elected in 1982, represents the sixth district, which includes Bristol, New Britain, Torrington, the Litchfield hills and the Farmington River valley.

Here's an earlier story that lays it out a little more:

January 17, 1997


The surprisingly cohesive House Ethics Committee displayed on national television Friday agreed on a deal with Speaker Newt Gingrich that will almost certainly lead to his reprimand and a $300,000 penalty.

The sanction, considered harsh by lawmakers, will allow Gingrich to remain as the top congressional leader for another term if the rest of the House endorses it Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, the New Britain Republican who heads the ethics panel, said there had been ``some serious misunderstandings'' before the hearing but her eight-member panel came together for its finale.

``The speaker of the House must be held to the highest ethical standards,'' said a stern-looking Johnson. ``No one is above the rules of the House.''

The ethics panel voted 7-1 to recommend the reprimand and fine to their colleagues. The only dissenter, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, was a last-minute addition to the committee who likened the speaker's conduct to running a yellow light.

Gingrich admitted he created tax-exempt foundations to fund programs aimed at advancing his political agenda. He also confessed to providing ``inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable'' information about his activities to the ethics committee.

Johnson said she found it ``deeply disturbing'' that Gingrich's extensive letters to her committee contained ``glaring, even stark, contradictions of fact.''

The speaker's lawyer, Randy Evans, blamed Gingrich's busy schedule and his other attorneys for the errors. But Johnson said she is stunned the speaker exercised ``such a casual degree of oversight.''

Special counsel James Cole said the bipartisan, four-member investigatory subcommittee believed the proper penalty for Gingrich's conduct fell somewhere between a reprimand and censure. A censure would force the speaker from his powerful perch.

It opted to support a reprimand with the additional requirement of $300,000 reimbursement from Gingrich to cover a portion of the tab for the costly ethics investigation. Cole said misinformation from the speaker delayed the probe and added to its expense.

Cole said Gingrich ``should make sure he pays it in an ethical manner. It is up to him to do it in the right way.'' He said if the speaker fails to raise the cash properly ``there's a chance of being back here.''

Johnson called the penalty ``tough and unprecedented compared with past cases.''

``We have come up with a fair result and a fair resolution of the matter,'' said Cole. He said if proof exists that Gingrich lied, he would urge censure or more.

Summarizing the panel's findings, Cole said, ``Over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities.''

Cole said that while ``bells and whistles'' of warning were going off, ``Mr. Gingrich ran a very lot of yellow lights, some orange lights.''

Rep. Steve Schiff, a New Mexico Republican, said the subcommittee succeeded in ignoring ``the political currents swimming around us.'' He said the ``reprimand plus'' penalty is appropriate.

But Schiff added that Gingrich's friends will think the panel's recommendation unduly harsh and the speaker's foes won't be satisfied unless the Georgia Republican ``is drawn and quartered after being boiled in oil.''

The six-hour hearing featured lengthy statements by Cole and lawyers for Gingrich presenting their respective takes on the case, then short comments by members of the panel, then a period of questions and answers. After retreating behind closed doors briefly, the panel voted on sanctions late Friday.

It represents the culmination of a case filed in Sept. 1994 and in the hands of a special counsel for more than a year. In the past month, the ethics committee almost splintered, with its members holding competing press conferences and dueling almost daily about the proper procedures to follow.

Johnson, who had come under harsh criticism, diplomatically called it ``a difficult environment.''

``We've had our storms,'' said Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the panel since a Washington congressman resigned this week amidst allegations he turned over an illegally obtained tape recording of a cellular phone conversation to two newspapers.

Rep. Porter Goss, the Florida Republican who led the investigatory subcommittee, praised Johnson for her ``extraordinary perseverance, patient and commitment'' in bringing the ethics panel through its troubles.

Schiff complimented Johnson simply ``for getting us here.''

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, criticized Johnson and the GOP for preventing a full hearing where Cole could present witnesses and explain the case in detail. But she also thanked Johnson for the cooperative spirit on display Friday.

Johnson appeared relieved to have the hearing behind her. Her service on the ethics panel ends Tuesday.

Another story, focused on Johnson:

January 10, 1997


In her two decades of political life, U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson has never attracted the kind of attention she's getting these days.

And she surely wishes it wasn't so.

Two potential rivals for the New Britain Republican's congressional seat are already on the attack - and Democrats across the country have Johnson in their crosshairs.

Plainville professor Charlotte Koskoff, who nearly upset Johnson at the polls last year, called her leadership of the badly split House Ethics Committee ``very, very sad.''

``She's really blown it,'' said Bristol businessman Jim Griffin, who lost to Johnson in 1988 but hopes for a rematch in 1998.

Johnson has guided the ethics panel the past two years as it maneuvered through a political minefield to issue rulings on a series of complaints about House Speaker Newt Gingrich's conduct.

Most were settled unanimously behind closed doors after much wrangling, which Johnson insists is evidence of her strong, fair  leadership.

But one last complaint remains - and history may hinge on it.

The pace of the assault against Gingrich has quickened as the stakes have risen. Now the partisan rancor that has long infected the House has publicly riven Johnson's 10-member committee as well.

Paul Gigot, a conservative commentator for The Wall Street Journal, called it ``a public blood feud.''

``What you have is total, global, nuclear war. It's impossible to overestimate the poisonous air in the Ethics Committee,'' Gigot said.

At least three Democrats among the five serving on Johnson's ethics panel have sharply criticized her in recent days.

Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington said Johnson's willingness to buckle to Gingrich's needs indicate she is ``throwing herself on a hand grenade for the speaker.''

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California charged Johnson with abusing her power when she canceled a week-long hearing into the case after Democrats griped about details.

Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland joined Pelosi in telling Johnson he was ``particularly troubled'' by her abrupt decision to cancel the hearings.

Whatever the merits of the Democrats' arguments, Johnson has certainly failed to keep her committee from falling apart. Its five Democrats and five GOP members have been dueling in public for days now.

Journalist John Barry, who wrote the definitive book on the downfall of former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, once described the ethics panel as possessing ``vast power.''

It serves, he said, as ``investigator, grand jury, prosecutor, jury, judge and appeals court.''

With the kind of clout, Johnson's committee holds Gingrich's political fate in its grasp.

Soon, probably next Sunday, the panel will recommend a penalty  for the misconduct the speaker admits he engaged in. There may a public hearing Friday and perhaps Saturday.

It is likely the committee will urge a reprimand that would let Gingrich retain his position. But it can urge censure or ouster and thereby toss Gingrich from the nation's third highest political office.

Griffin said the ethics hearing on Gingrich this week and the subsequent decision on sanctions ``may be Nancy's last chance to salvage respectability for her chairmanship, but I don't think she's up to the task.''

He said he expects ``a grotesque finale'' to a case Johnson has mishandled from the start.

``There will be no redemption for her,'' said Griffin, ``because she's made up her mind. You have to be an idiot or Nancy Johnson to believe what Newt is saying.''

Koskoff said Johnson has been on ``the wrong side'' of the Gingrich case all along and won't switch now.

She said her former foe's refusal to extend the ethics committee's deadline despite a request from most of its members and the special counsel it hired is ``frankly unfathomable. It's all mind-boggling.''

Johnson has perhaps shown too much haste.

But she only agreed to stay on the panel into the new year, when her term expired, because Democrats agreed the matter would be over by Jan. 21. At that point, Johnson could finally quit.

Any delay and the case could go on forever, as Republican ethics panel member David Hobson of Ohio said.

What happens next in the tangled matter is, of course, impossible to predict.

Johnson could yet shock everyone with her ruling on Gingrich. Or perhaps she can break through the political fog and convince the mainstream of America that a chastened Gingrich deserves no more than a reprimand.

But one thing is sure: that Johnson will be mighty happy to leave the ethics committee behind.

She said there are plenty of more pressing issues her constituents would like to have her working on, from tax policy to health care. The Gingrich case is, for her, just a terrible distraction.

Johnson has represented northwestern Connecticut's sixth district since 1982. The district includes Bristol, New Britain, Torrington, the Litchfield hills and the Farmington River valley.

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