Originally created 01/17/97

Counsel report at deadline



WASHINGTON - Special counsel James M. Cole labored to finish his report on Newt Gingrich's misconduct Thursday and clear the way for abbreviated public hearings and a vote to punish the speaker.

Mr. Cole's report was going to the House Ethics Committee, but not yet to the public, after a week of diversions over the hearing schedule and an unauthorized recording of a Gingrich phone call.

Televised hearings were not expected to begin before this afternoon, and could continue into the weekend. Mr. Gingrich was not expected to testify at the hearing and has not decided whether to address the House on the day his punishment is debated, said a Republican, who commented only on condition of anonymity.

The counsel has gathered information about Mr. Gingrich's use of tax-exempt activities to further political goals and about misleading statements given the committee under the speaker's name.

Mr. Gingrich confessed Dec. 21 to violating the rules, admitting he should have sought specific legal advice about financing his college course and a town hall television project with tax-exempt donations. And he took responsibility for inaccurate assertions that his former political organization - GOPAC - had no role in the college course.

Just a week ago it appeared that the ethics committee would be engaged this week in dramatic, televised hearings - during which Mr. Cole would air his findings before the panel made its recommendations on punishment to the House.

But the committee's plans, and the political dynamics, changed radically.

Democrats on the ethics committee demanded at a news conference last week that next Tuesday's vote be postponed. At the time, under a unanimous committee agreement, Mr. Cole's report was due by Feb. 4 - and Democrats argued that lawmakers should read it before voting on punishment.

Committee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and the other GOP members then had their own news conference. She unilaterally postponed the hearings, gave Mr. Cole Thursday's deadline and said shorter hearings would follow.

Democrats then were rocked again. A Florida couple taped a telephone call of Mr. Gingrich discussing a political response to the ethics violations, along with House GOP leaders and staff.

A partial transcript of the call, which may have been recorded illegally, was published by The New York Times in a story saying the tape was obtained from a Democratic House member. The couple said they gave the tape to the ranking Democrat on the committee, Jim McDermott of Washington, leaving the impression that Mr. McDermott leaked the tape.

FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered a criminal investigation into the taping and dissemination of the recording and Mr. McDermott stepped aside from the Gingrich case.

"It's the embodiment of the old saw that good luck follows hard work," said Rich Galen, spokesman for the House Republican campaign organization and a strategist for Mr. Gingrich.

"It's one thing for a team to fumble the ball in a football game. It's something else for the other team to score points off that fumble. And I think that's what we've been able to do."

Meanwhile, Democrats renewed their assault on Republican handling of the case. Rep. Vic Fazio, the third-ranking House Democrat and a former ethics committee member, said the final stage has been a "political effort on the part of the Republican leadership to minimize the political damage on the speaker."

He predicted the case would "leave a scar on the institution. It may very well be the end of the ethics process."