Report urges fining speaker Independent counsel is unexpectedly harsh on Gingrich; Call for more investigation; A penalty of $100,000 and reprimand is urged, sources say


WASHINGTON -- The report of a special outside counsel investigating Newt Gingrich is more critical of the House speaker than an earlier ethics committee finding, legislative aides said last night.

In a more than 220-page document circulated to ethics committee members yesterday, special counsel James Cole is said to take a harsh view of Gingrich's admitted ethical violations and to dismiss the speaker's claim that his lapses were unintentional.

As punishment, Cole recommended that Gingrich be reprimanded by the House when a formal vote comes up Tuesday and that he pay a substantial fine of more than $100,000, sources close to the investigation said.

Cole also recommends that the matter be referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, aides said.

Gingrich admitted last month to allowing tax-exempt contributions to be improperly used for political purposes and to providing "inaccurate" and "misleading" information about his activities to the ethics committee.

The speaker contended, however, that he was "naive" and that he had no intention of misleading the committee.

Although Cole's report comes as no surprise to four members of the ethics subcommittee that have been working with him for more than a year on the Gingrich probe, its harshness troubled other members of the panel, aides said.

The ethics subcommittee report of last month concluded that Gingrich was guilty of the two violations, but did not take a position on whether his acts had been deliberate. That carefully worded report was hashed out in a series of political bargaining between the two Republicans and two Democrats on the panel, which includes Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Cole, who is acting as a non-partisan, independent investigator, prepared a much more detailed analysis of all the facts in evidence in the case and drew his conclusions from that evidence.

Thousands of pages of supporting documents accompany his report, aides say.

The language of Cole's conclusions, circulating yesterday evening, was said to be the cause of the ethics committee's inability to agree on a firm schedule for holding a public hearing on a potential sanction for Gingrich.

Earlier yesterday, a spokesman for the ethics committee said a public hearing schedule would be announced by 5 p.m. It was expected to call for a private meeting of the ethics committee this morning, to be following by a public session this afternoon that could continue into the weekend.

Committee members said last night they still expect that schedule to be met, but nothing firm was agreed upon.

It's likely that the committee will meet this morning as planned to reach final decisions. But from there the situation is murky. It's possible that the language of Cole's conclusions could be toned down, one aide said last night.

Some Democrats are angry because they say the Republicans want to portray Gingrich's offenses as no more serious than "jaywalking."

Cole's report as originally written makes that very difficult, the aides said.

Cardin would not comment last night on the substance of the Cole report.

"We've always said 'withhold judgment' until Cole's report is issued," he said. "Our subcommittee finding was never intended to be a benchmark."

But Cardin noted that a Republican decision to shrink the time for a public hearing from a week to three days has greatly altered the process.

He said the original plan for Cole to present his report in public in detail, as Democrats had hoped, was no longer possible. The committee had not definitely decided what form its public session on the Gingrich case would take, he said.

Even so, Cardin, who is now the senior Democrat on the panel with the departure this week of Jim McDermott, said he was hopeful of a "successful, bipartisan conclusion" to the case.

It been expected that the ethics committee would recommend that the speaker be punished with a reprimand. That would not require him to step down from his leadership post, but would give him the distinction of being the first speaker in history punished by colleagues.

Some Gingrich allies on the House floor are urging that the House impose the mildest sanction, which is a letter of reproval.

Some Democrats have urged that the speaker be censured, which would require him to give up the leadership job.

Pub Date: 1/17/97

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