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Ethics panel queries Gingrich in closed session


WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich answered ethical charges against him in a "very freewheeling exchange" with the House ethics committee yesterday but wouldn't share details of the melee with the public.

As he entered the closed committee meeting, Mr. Gingrich, who has labeled the accusations filed by various Democrats as "pathetic," flashed a Cheshire cat smile and mumbled, "It will be an interesting day."

Afterward, the normally chatty Georgia Republican said only, "I'm through for the day," and indicated a willingness to appear again "at the convenience" of the committee. The panel appears to have put a lid on the public comments of witnesses.

Mr. Gingrich was the 11th of 13 witnesses called by the committee. For all the publicity surrounding the dispute, the inquiry is in a very early stage. Calling in Mr. Gingrich and the other witnesses, even before the committee has voted on whether the charges merit an official investigation, is an attempt to break a deadlock between Democratic and Republican members.

The probe is apparently focusing on the speaker's agreement to write two books for HarperCollins, a publishing company that is part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. The charges also involve a televised college course that Mr. Gingrich taught until recently.

One of the books, "To Renew America," is No. 1 on the New York Times' list of nonfiction best sellers. The original deal called for Mr. Gingrich to receive a $4.5 million advance for the book, but after a storm of controversy, he accepted a $1 advance and the standard royalty.

His critics maintain that Mr. Gingrich's book contract is improper because Mr. Murdoch's company could benefit from legislation pending before Congress and subject to Mr. Gingrich's influence.

Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Murdoch's chief lobbyist met before the book contract was signed, and Mr. Murdoch apparently at least mentioned some deregulatory legislation of interest to his communications holdings. Mr. Gingrich characterizes the meeting as a courtesy call and says he didn't know then that Mr. Murdoch owned HarperCollins.

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Gingrich's agent and current and former aides, as well as representatives of HarperCollins and competing publishing houses, have testified. Mr. Murdoch, the final witness, is scheduled to appear Tuesday.

Connecticut Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, who chairs the ethics committee, said the panel would hold lengthy discussions, beginning next week, before deciding what to do next, including whether to hire an outside counsel to investigate Mr. Gingrich, as many Democrats and some public-interest organizations want.

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