WASHINGTON -- The Newt Gingrich ethics case took a new twist yesterday when a Florida couple who taped a cellular phone call in which the House speaker discussed his case said they had given the tape to the senior Democrat on the ethics committee, thinking it might be evidence.
The tape was leaked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and to the New York Times, which identified its source as a Democratic congressman "hostile" to Gingrich. On the tape, Gingrich is heard discussing strategy for a Republican public relations campaign to limit damage from his admitted ethics violations.
Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state, the Democrat to whom the Florida couple said they gave the Gingrich tape, declined to respond publicly yesterday to their disclosure, made at a news conference in Gainesville, Fla.
If McDermott played some role in leaking the tape, he could be charged with a felony offense of violating the Wiretap Act. The law makes it a federal crime to intentionally intercept a phone conversation or to pass on its contents.
Last night, the ethics committee's chief counsel, Theodore J. Van Der Meid, turned over the recording to the criminal division of the Justice Department.
In addition to calling for action by the Justice Department, Republican leaders say they are considering filing an ethics charge against McDermott.
"This is outrageous," said Rep. John A. Boehner, the fourth-ranking House Republican leader and one of the participants in the call with Gingrich, whose cellular phone allowed the conversation to be overheard. "If, in fact, Congressman McDermott is responsible for the leak, he should resign from Congress immediately."
The disclosure yesterday by the Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, was a setback for congressional Democrats, who have been fighting the Republicans over the Gingrich case and have tried to keep the spotlight focused on Gingrich's misdeeds. The focus of the case will turn, at least for now, to McDermott and the Democrats.
Privately, Republican leaders were delighted. A wiretap offense, they say, is potentially far more serious than the violations of House rules to which Gingrich has admitted and confirms their assertion that the entire ethics action against the speaker has been driven by partisan motives.
"This just proves what we've been saying all along, that the Democrats are so determined to bring down the speaker that they are willing to commit a felony to do it," said Rich Galen, a spokesman for the House Republican leadership. "What do the leaders of the Democrats in Congress intend to do with their colleague, or is this the beginning of a cover-up?"
In a statement yesterday, McDermott said he had spoken with Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, the Connecticut Republican who chairs the ethics committee, but would have no public comment now. Johnson was not available for comment last night.
House Democratic leaders were withholding comment last night until McDermott offers some explanation, their aides said.
The Martins, who are Democratic activists in Florida, could also be prosecuted under the Wiretap Act. At their news conference, held outside their lawyer's office, they explained that they thought they were acting as good citizens.
The couple said they were riding in their car the morning of Dec. 21, playing with a police scanner they use to listen to auto races at Daytona International Speedway. They said they picked up the Gingrich conversation, identified familiar voices and decided to tape the call and give it one day to their grandson.
"I was so excited to think that I actually heard a real politician's voice -- we were thrilled," said Alice Martin, who smiled broadly and self-consciously throughout the news conference. Her husband, John, added: "We just thought it was a part of history."
As it happened, that same day, Gingrich admitted that he had brought discredit on the House by giving the ethics committee false information about the use of tax-exempt contributions for political purposes and by failing to get proper legal advice on the matter.
Since then, the committee has been embroiled in a partisan feud over when and how it will complete the process of determining a punishment for the speaker. Last week, because of the ethics cloud hanging over Gingrich, he and his allies had to wage an exhaustive campaign to get him re-elected as speaker -- and they succeeded with only three votes to spare.
The Martins, who have held Democratic offices in their home county, said they recognized that the conversation they taped might be relevant to the Gingrich case and decided to turn it over to Rep. Karen L. Thurman, the Democrat who represents their district.
"They did what good citizens ought to do, which is contact their congressperson," said their lawyer, Larry Turner, who coached them during their news conference.
The tape's journey
The couple said that they left the tape at Thurman's Gainesville office but that the envelope with the tape in it was returned to them unopened.
The Martins said they ran into Thurman in Washington when they were there last week to attend the opening ceremonies for the new Congress. The congresswoman, they said, referred them to McDermott as the senior Democrat on the ethics committee.
They described how they wandered through the Capitol in search of the ethics committee, passing the bank of TV cameras that has been posted outside the door for weeks while the Gingrich matter is being discussed.
"We told him we had something to turn over to the ethics committee," Mrs. Martin said of McDermott. "He took the envelope [containing the tape] in his hand and said he would listen to it."
Turner would not allow them to comment on Gingrich or the ethics case. He acknowledged that they could be prosecuted under both federal and Florida law for illegally taping a private conversation. But he said he hoped prosecutors would understand that they had no criminal intent.
Democrats say the tape proves that the Republican speaker violated an agreement he had with the ethics committee to remain silent. Republicans say the transcript indicates, on the contrary, that Gingrich was determined to observe the agreement.
Pub Date: 1/14/97