Did Pelosi Violate House Rules or Commit Defamation In Claiming Dirt On Gingrich?

This week, we witnessed an extraordinary appearance from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who told reporters that she has dirt on Newt Gingrich and would reveal at some later date — suggesting that the embarrassing disclosure would come from her service on an ethics review of Gingrich when he was House Speaker. I have been a long critic of Gingrich for some of his statements and policies, but I find Pelosi’s statements to be reprehensible and unethical. What concerns me, again, is the relative absence of criticism from Democrats who should show more principle in denouncing this type of politics.

Pelosi told reporters:

“One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich,” she said. “I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.” She then added that she would release the bombshell “When the time’s right.”

That is not just grossly unfair to Gingrich but it could be a gross violation of ethics rules depending on her meaning. One of two things is true. First, and most likely, the information from the ethics investigation was not deemed appropriate to disclose and remains under confidential rules. If that is the case, Pelosi is violating the spirit if not the letter of the ethical rules in referring to the unreported allegations. Second, if the information was deemed appropriate to release and is so damaging, why did not the members release it in the interests of the public interest.

The House Ethics Rules contain the following provision:

Confidentiality of Records
The Privacy Act protects the records maintained by government agencies from disclosure, except for specified purposes or with the permission of the person to whom the record pertains. Although the statute does permit disclosure ―to either House of Congress, some agencies require Members to show written consent from their constituents before they will release the constituents‘ records to the Members. The Privacy Act does not apply to congressional documents. Historically, however, communications between Members and constituents have been considered confidential and should generally not be made public without the constituent‘s consent.

The rules mention confidentiality guarantees 27 times.

It is also incredibly unfair to announce that you have secret evidence of wrongdoing or impropriety against a candidate with a wink and a nod. It is degrading for our political system as well as to the House of Representatives as an institution. [Notably, this is the same Pelosi who recently pointed out that while a majority of Americans despise Congress, a larger minority did not despise Congress when she was Speaker.]

While her spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, insisted Pelosi “was clearly referring to the extensive amount of information that is in the public record, including the comprehensive committee report with which the public may not be fully aware.” That is not what the press comments suggested. Pelosi said she would release information when the time was right. If she was referring to material already in the public domain, she was intentionally misleading the media in order to impugn the character of a candidate. Why would it be news that Pelosi was prepared to restate what is already known in public. The reference to the ethics investigation suggested knowledge beyond what was released to the public. No matter how you feel about Gingrich, that is unfair and wrong.

Such comments come close to defamation lines. A member can cite the speech and debate clause as well as common law privilege against such claims. However, statements off the floor or outside of legislative proceedings are generally not privileged. Here the clear import is that there is some deadly scandalous information that has yet to be disclosed against Gingrich. Unfortunately, as a former public official and a public figure, Gingrich falls under the New York Times v. Sullivan standard which requires actual knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard. There are also robust protections for opinion. Pelosi can insist that, while others may not be amazed by the dirt, she thought it was fatal. Moreover, she can insist (with her office’s later rationalization) that she was only discussing public information.

The difficult in Gingrich making a case for a tort does not make it right. Frankly, some liability here would be helpful in cleaning up the current cesspool of politics. The question is whether the House will respond to the use of the ethics process in this way. In the meantime, Pelosi should apologize to both Gingrich and her colleagues . . . and the American people. I do not buy the argument that this was just a promise to repackage what is already known or available. The material reviewed by the committee was not all made public and, if she was simply promising to point out material that is already available, she conveyed that in a remarkably odd fashion. If you are not going to share the nature and basis of your allegations, then don’t mention them until you are ready to explain the context and specific of the allegations. By the way, if you want to read the report, here it is.

House Rules: Code of Conduct Student 09-10

Source: Washington Post

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49 thoughts on “Did Pelosi Violate House Rules or Commit Defamation In Claiming Dirt On Gingrich?”

  1. Pelosi owes no one an apology nor should she be concerned about one word of her statement. When and if Republicans ever act in an ethical manner then Democrats should as well. The right has shown with maddening regularity a complete disregard for appropriate behavior and Democrats need not, should not any longer bear the sole burden of being high-minded. I hope she has dirt and uses it. As other posters have stated, the GOP has no concern or remorse for the ugly lies they continue to propagate agaginst the President.

  2. To the topic though, I find it valuable to reminded of ethical obligations that the public might not often be asked to consider. My overall feeling though is that transparency on investigations of Gingrich are due to the people because it is our government. Even if innocent, the public should be able to thoroughly understand the record.

    I know I appreciated, for instance, watching Prof. Turley defend a judge facing impeachment. We didn’t simply read about it. I was able to see Congress members act very ignorant about the law while a professor of the law had to be patient and still honor the process in place, crude as it might have seemed at moments.

    Gingrich is a crook and if someone is waiting for a magic bullet, they’re simply not looking very hard at the obvious. I mean, for christ’s sake, he ditched his wife because she wasn’t ‘first lady’ enough and “besides she has cancer”

  3. They should slap Pelosi with a fine. She’ll just pay it with the millions of dollars on her Visa card, nicely inflated by her insider trading. What a hideous woman she is, nearly as reprehensible as Wasserman-Shultz.

    A pox on them all I say.

  4. “Dow right Progressive.”


    raff, your auto-complete typos are just killing me, man!

  5. Great links Swarthmore mom. The following is from “The Atlantic” article:

    “My advice to civil libertarians: don’t vote for Gingrich. And my advice to his campaign? Let the people know where you stand on this one.

    Here’s text you can use in your next commercial: “Elect me in 2012 and I’ll empower federal police with extraordinary latitude to aggressively spy on American families. That way if anybody is plotting a terrorist attack I can stop it, though I’ll be tempted to just let it happen, to remind you how frightened you ought to be all the time. Never forget that I approve this message.””

  6. SwM,

    My republican friends, of whom some are huge contributors, are just sick about this whole Gingrich thing. He embarrasses the hell out of them and they are finally starting to wonder if their party is really kaput.

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