Democrat to Quit Probe of Gingrich

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Representative Jim McDermott said Tuesday he would quit the House Ethics Committee as Democrats sought to quell the furor over a clandestine tape recording of a telephone conversation involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The FBI has opened an investigation into the issue.

The announcement by McDermott, who has been identified as the source of the leak of the recording to the media last week, did little to clarify the outlook on when or how the underlying ethics case against Gingrich will be disposed.

For one thing, McDermott's offer to remove himself came with a key condition: He would depart only if a committee Republican also removes himself or herself from the Gingrich matter, thus preserving on the panel what McDermott called "the historic equal ratio." Currently, the committee consists of five Republicans and five Democrats.

The controversy's dimensions further enlarged Tuesday as FBI Director Louis Freeh disclosed that he has ordered an immediate investigation into the circumstances of the wiretap, which may be a criminal violation.

McDermott's decision to remove himself capped a furious day of angry exchanges between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Without admitting any involvement in what Republicans now gleefully call "Tape-gate," McDermott charged that Republicans have "perverted" the ethics process in order to "obstruct every reasonable effort to get at the truth" in the two-year case against Gingrich.

The Seattle Democrat, who had chaired the ethics panel until the Republicans captured the House in 1994, characterized his resignation and words as "a matter of conscience," taken to call public attention to "the subversion of the independent, fair ethics process."

While not addressing how he received the tape or if he provided it to the media, he said he delivered it to the ethics committee office because, in his view, the conversation showed Gingrich had breached his agreement not to orchestrate a response to the ethics case against him.

McDermott blasted the committee chair, Representative Nancy Johnson, a Republican, for refusing to accept the recording and instead sending it to the criminal division of the Justice Department.

Earlier in the day, House Republicans charged that other Democrats besides McDermott may have known about the tape recording -- made in possible violation of the law -- and they called on law-enforcement officials and Democratic House leaders to expeditiously ferret out the precise circumstances under which the tape was made and how it ended up in the hands of the news media.

A Florida couple, Democratic party activists, admitted Monday that they taped the Dec. 21 conversation between Gingrich and his Republican confidants -- inadvertently broadcast on their police scanner because one of the Republicans was talking on a cellular phone.

The couple said that then, at the recommendation of their own Democratic congresswoman, Representative Karen Thurman, handed the tape over to McDermott.