On Further Examination

<p><a href="/news/feature/1997/02/gingrich.mov">Taped</a> comments raise questions about ethics chair’s bias. <p><ul><li><a href="/news/feature/1997/02/gingrich.mov">Download</a> the QuickTime video (533K) of Ethics Committee Chair Nancy Johnson congratulating Gingrich’s attorney. You may need to download <a href="http://www.quicktime.apple.com/sw/sw.html">QuickTime software</a> before viewing.</ul>

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At the end of the five-hour televised hearing into Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ethics charges, C-SPAN microphones picked up what sounded like a pretty partisan sentiment from the House Ethics Committee Chair, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.). Johnson, whom critics repeatedly have charged with obstructing the ethics investigation because of her allegiance to the speaker, can be heard congratulating Gingrich attorney Randy Evans after the hearing, and expressing disappointment that she didn’t have enough time to scrutinize liberal groups who use tax-exempt funds.

It was an ironic comment from Johnson, since she was the one responsible for unilaterally — and in violation of House rules — reversing a committee scheduling decision, which reduced the public hearings of the Gingrich ethics case from five days to five hours.

New_York_Times _advertisement During the January 17 hearing, Gingrich’s attorney defended Gingrich’s abuse of tax-exempt foundations as business as usual, saying other nonprofit groups use their tax-exempt 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 status to attack conservatives. Evans held up a January 17 full-page ad in the New York Times placed by Planned Parenthood of New York City, which criticized the Republicans’ plans to limit abortions. “It is illegal,” said Evans, but “it is not something that is novel or unique to the speaker.”

When Evans finished, he stepped away from the microphone and approached the chairwoman for an informal chat — a chat picked up by C-SPAN. “Thanks, Randy,” said Johnson. “I thought your presentation was very good. And I thought that ad from the New York Times was very valuable. I think we kind of breezed over the complexity of the 501(c)3 stuff.”

Eve Paul, Planned Parenthood’s general counsel, said the ad was legal because the IRS and tax courts have long held that presenting disputable views and advocating controversial positions can be educational. Paul says the group had the ad checked by Caplin and Drysdale, one of the most prestigious tax law firms in Washington, D.C. “We’re very careful because we know we’re being scrutinized,” Paul said.

Gingrich, of course, admitted to failing to consult qualified attorneys on any of his many projects involving tax-exempt groups. “It’s quite easy to evade your responsibility by trying to divert attention away from your own problems,” Paul said.

That’s exactly what Gingrich — who still faces investigations by the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service — appears to be doing. He took the opportunity, during his first public comments after the House reprimanded him and fined him $300,000, to take a jab at the exclusively Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, which is associated with a 501(c)3 organization. “You can, on the left, do anything you want and nobody seems to notice. But if you are a conservative and you follow the law and you hire lawyers and you do what you can, if you make a single mistake, you had better plan to be pilloried because you’re politically incorrect.”

Damon Chappie covers Congress for Roll Call.

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