WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich, under investigation for allegedly giving false information to the House ethics committee, did make an erroneous statement, but it was his lawyer's fault, Rep. John Linder of Georgia, a close Gingrich ally, said yesterday.
Seizing on Linder's admission, Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican, said the speaker owed his party and Congress a thorough explanation of the matter before asking them to vote for him for speaker again on Jan. 7.
"Misleading the Congress or submitting false information is very, very, serious," King said. He said he believed at least 20 other Republicans either shared his concern or were getting "very nervous" about being out on a limb.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said that while he doubted that the committee would level serious charges against the speaker, he agreed that Mr. Gingrich should explain what was going on. "I think he has to be very responsive."
Whatever erroneous statement Gingrich made apparently dealt with the financing of a college course he taught in Georgia that was heavily promoted by GOPAC, a political action committee he headed until 1994.
Although the investigation now includes other accusations, such inaccuracies to the committee, it began around the charge that the course involved the improper political use of tax-exempt money.
The current situation was made even more confusing for House members by conflicting statements about whether Gingrich's lawyer, Jan Baran, had withdrawn from the case. On Wednesday night, Baran told the Associated Press he had dropped out. Yesterday evening, he and Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary, said he was still involved, but with a reduced role.
Seeking to dampen the alarm, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican conference, sent out a letter to all House Republicans saying: "On behalf of Newt, I am asking all members to please defer comment on this matter until there is an official statement from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and until you have heard Newt's response to any information issued by the committee."
Baran, the speaker's lawyer for the more than two years this case has dragged on, said he had withdrawn from representation of the speaker last Saturday. On Dec. 14, an ethics subcommittee apparently presented Gingrich and his lawyer with a Gingrich statement it thought was false concerning the college course. The subcommittee may have set out formal charges at that time, but its members would not comment.
It was not clear just what the subcommittee thought was false. But Baran insisted in a statement that everything that he filed had been approved in advance by Gingrich. That statement in itself was an unusual blast from a departing lawyer, though it concluded, "We wish him well."
But yesterday evening, Baran and Blankley jointly issued a one-paragraph statement that they said was necessary "to avoid a growing misconception." It said that Baran and his firm "are no longer representing the Speaker directly before the Ethics Committee or its Special Counsel, but are continuing to assist Newt and others in that proceeding. Randy Evans has assumed responsibility as lead counsel with the committee." Neither Baran nor Blankley responded to several telephone calls seeking clarification.
By keeping Baran as an attorney, if that is what is happening, the speaker may diminish the risk of Baran's being used as a witness against him. But the lawyer-client privilege of confidentiality could be challenged by the committee if Gingrich's defense becomes, as Linder suggested, one of blaming Baran. The committee could try to force Baran to explain what went on.
Gingrich's new ethics lawyer is J. Randolph Evans, a longtime political supporter from Atlanta. Evans did not respond to several telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.
There are other issues besides whether Gingrich provided the ethics committee with "accurate, reliable and complete information." They involve whether he used tax-exempt money for partisan purposes and whether -GOPAC, a political action committee he headed, provided a personal slush fund for him. Another major uncertainty surrounding the case is just who will act on it next year. Republicans are seeking to have the committee remade, in an effort to get rid of Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, its senior Democrat, and to get Republicans like Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, its chairman, out of the politically unhealthy line of fire. Democrats argue the committee should stay intact until the Gingrich case is settled.
Representatives Dick Armey of Texas, the majority leader, and Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader, met once on that issue on Nov. 22, but there have been no discussions since then.
Pub Date: 12/20/96