Cardin replaces McDermott as top Democrat on House ethics committee in Gingrich case Washington state liberal received tape of speaker's cell phone call, later leaked


WASHINGTON -- Stepping into the breach left by the departure of Rep. Jim McDermott, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore yesterday became the senior Democratic negotiator on the House ethics committee in the case against Speaker Newt Gingrich.

McDermott withdrew from consideration of the case on Tuesday, after it was revealed that he was given a tape of a cellular phone call involving the speaker that was later leaked to reporters.

The replacement of McDermott with Cardin was greeted with relief by Republicans as well as Democrats because Cardin is less flamboyant and partisan than McDermott and is considered more evenhanded.

"I think this marks the return of bipartisanship to the ethics committee as well as to the House of Representatives," said Rich Galen, a spokesman for the House Republican leadership.

Cardin was not available for comment. He spent much of yesterday working with the panel's Republican chairwoman, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, trying to salvage a process that has been nearly blown apart by partisan bickering. The two sought to work out a schedule for public hearings on the ethics violations to which Gingrich has admitted, before the House votes Tuesday on a punishment.

After a two-year investigation by the ethics committee, Gingrich said last month that he had brought discredit on the House by giving the panel false information about his use of tax-exempt contributions for political purposes and by failing to obtain proper legal advice.

A full report on the investigation by James M. Cole, the special outside counsel, is to be submitted to the committee today. Cole is expected to formally present his findings at a public hearing to be held sometime in the few days before the House vote.

Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, one of five Republicans on the ethics committee, withdrew from the Gingrich case yesterday to enable the panel to reach a balance of four Democrats and four Republicans.

Cardin's ascension to ranking Democrat on the committee formalized a role he has been playing behind the scenes almost from the beginning of the Gingrich case, committee sources said.

McDermott, a Washington state liberal, did not get along with Johnson, whom the Democrats consider a weak chairman under the control of the Republican leadership.

But Cardin, the senior Democrat on the four-member ethics subcommittee that conducted the investigation, worked well with his Republican counterparts, particularly Rep. Steven H. Schiff of New Mexico. Cardin and Schiff, both low-key lawyers, often met privately in the past two years to iron out partisan problems.

Cardin is due to leave the ethics committee once the Gingrich case is completed Tuesday.

Pub Date: 1/16/97

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