AN OHIO REPUBLICAN, who is suing Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott over the alleged leak of an illegal tape-recording of GOP leaders, has sent out a fund-raising letter seeking political contributions to pay for his legal bills.
WASHINGTON - After gaining permission to use campaign funds to bankroll his federal lawsuit against Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, an Ohio Republican congressman now is using the litigation as a tactic to bolster his political war chest.
In a fund-raising letter, Rep. John Boehner pleads for campaign contributions to help pay for his lawsuit alleging that McDermott, a Democrat, leaked to newspapers an illegal tape recording of a phone call between House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other Republican leaders.
"Americans are fed up with self-righteous liberals who think eavesdropping, illegal taping of private conversations and leaking privileged information are OK as long as it's the Democrats who are doing it," Boehner writes.
Then, in the next sentence, the letter continues: "There's a postage-free envelope included with my letter and I urge you to use it today. Please make your personal check payable to `Friends of John Boehner' knowing that it'll help me bring the Democrats to justice - either in the courts or at the ballot box."
Boehner also is expected to write Attorney General Janet Reno this week to question her about delays in a grand-jury investigation of McDermott's role in the tape case. McDermott is alleged to have leaked a tape of a December 1996 conversation, recorded over a police scanner by a Florida couple while Boehner spoke on a cellular telephone.
At the heart of the delay is a request by McDermott that the court quash the subpoenas of two of his staff and James Cole, the congressional independent counsel hired to investigate Gingrich's ethical lapses, which ultimately resulted in the speaker paying a $300,000 penalty. Because the grand-jury process is secret, the results of those motions have not been made public.
Boehner has delayed filing an ethics complaint in the House of Representatives until the Justice Department completes its investigation, but now he worries it won't end until a two-year statute of limitations runs out in January.
The Florida couple who pleaded guilty to an infraction of illegally recording the phone call said they had given the tape to McDermott, who at the time was the chief Democrat on the House Ethics Committee. He ultimately was forced to step down from the Gingrich probe.
Boehner's fund-raising letter, included in a court filing in the U.S. District Court where Boehner is suing McDermott, is proof that the case is politically motivated, according to Frank Cicero Jr., the Chicago attorney representing McDermott.
It also shows that the issue - and the conversation between Gingrich and Republicans - was a matter of "substantial public concern" and therefore its release to the news media, which McDermott does not admit, would have been protected by the First Amendment.
"The alleged disclosure at issue here did not involve a conversation on a purely private matter," McDermott's attorneys argue. "It involved a conversation regarding an attempt to orchestrate a political response to a reprimand of the speaker by the House Ethics Committee in violation of an explicit agreement to the contrary between the speaker and the committee.
"This is core political speech and lies at the very heart of the First Amendment," the reply argues. "If a citizen who lawfully obtains such speech can be punished for disclosing it to the media, the protections of the First Amendment are more illusory than real."
But Ted Cruz, Boehner's attorney, said the fund-raising letter demonstrates nothing and highlights the weakness of McDermott's defense. Boehner alleges that McDermott gave the taped phone call - which Republicans argue did not violate any promise made by Gingrich - to The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal and Roll Call, a semiweekly congressional newspaper.
"The fund-raising letter is much ado about nothing," Cruz said. "Congressman McDermott has consistently attempted to delay the litigation and drive up the expense. It is reasonably expected that Congressman Boehner will use the means at his disposal to raise the funds to pursue this lawsuit."
Last fall, Boehner won permission from the Federal Election Commission and the House Ethics Committee to use campaign funds to pay his lawyers in the civil suit, an unprecedented action between two sitting members of Congress.
Using the case to raise money is no surprise, and the tactic will appeal to a certain brand of donor - political ideologues with a distaste for Democrats, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who has written books on political scandals and direct-mail fund raising.
"The old rule in direct mail is only angels and devils produce - and devils trump angels," Sabato said.
While McDermott is an unknown personality nationwide, Sabato said, "a dirty trick against Newt Gingrich might open up the pocketbooks of some conservatives."
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