Six years after an unlikely chain of events led to the front-page publication of a private conversation among House GOP leaders, Rep. John Boehner still wants to see justice served.
The Ohio Republican, whose cellphone signal was intercepted in December 1996, also wants to send a message that even in the nasty business of politics, there are limits to what opponents may do to each other.
Speaking publicly for the first time since he took the unprecedented step of suing a fellow Member, Boehner vowed to pursue his lawsuit against Rep. Jim McDermott, the Washington Democrat who has admitted to passing along the taped conversation to two reporters.
During an hour-long interview in his Longworth office, Boehner also revealed for the first time that he and McDermott met privately more than a dozen times last year in a failed attempt to settle the case. The talks fell apart after McDermott refused to agree to admit that he was wrong, one of three conditions set by Boehner.
Boehner said he decided to speak out after recent stories about the case prompted a number of lawmakers to inquire about the circumstances of a case that has dragged on for so long that most of the key players have moved on to vastly different roles and responsibilities.
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the former House Speaker who was the focus of the taped conversation about how GOP leaders would handle the fallout of his 1997 ethics investigation, is no longer in Congress. John and Alice Martin, the Florida couple who made the tape, admitted their crime and paid the penalty.
McDermott no longer sits on the House ethics committee, and Boehner himself has endured a remarkable transformation from fast-climbing member of the GOP leadership team to the serious but less flashy front-line work of molding legislation as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
“I decided that there are probably a lot of people who have no idea why I am doing this,” Boehner said. “While we may have political and policy differences here — we may fight to the death for a program — there is some limit to what you can do to go after your political opponents.
“And, in all honesty, McDermott’s actions in 1996 and early 1997 were outrageous. Way over the line.”
McDermott, he said, crossed the line when he leaked the tape to the press instead of handing it over to the members of the ethics committee handling the Gingrich case.
[IMGCAP(1)] “In my view, here’s the ranking member of the ethics committee, sitting in judgement of one of the biggest cases of the century knowing that he had received an illegally recorded tape conversation and then giving it to the media in an attempt to enhance his ability to hang the speaker,” Boehner said. “To put it out in the public domain was designed to put a hatchet in Gingrich’s back.”
That crossed the line, Boehner maintained, even when it was noted that the subject of the skirmishing was Gingrich, a politician well-known for being adept at using destructive methods to achieve political gains.
“That’s the whole point,” Boehner said. “There is a line over which you can’t step even in our business, and that’s the whole point of why I continue to pursue this lawsuit. Justice has to be brought to bear on McDermott.”
He added, “And the reason I did what I did then, and the reason I continue to pursue this case, is that people in politics must understand that there is a limit to what you can do to pursue your political opponents, and violating the law at a minimum is way over the line.”
The lawsuit, which contends that McDermott violated Boehner’s privacy rights by allowing reporters to listen to the illegally recorded tape, has traveled all the way to the Supreme Court already, and Boehner indicated he will take it back to the high court again if he has to do so.
Just before Christmas, both sides filed motions for summary judgement before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, who is expected to issue a ruling early this year. While steeped in the bitter partisan enmity that typifies the workings of the House over the past two decades, the case raises a number of First Amendment and ethical questions about the role of government officials who handle sensitive information and their responsibilities to the public and the institutions they serve. And it seeks to yet again revisit the question of whether the government can punish someone who receives illegally gained information, even if the person had no role in the original illegal act.
Moreover, a lawsuit seeking punitive damages between two sitting lawmakers is unprecedented. And while the case arose during the era of Gingrich, who truly viewed politics as war, Boehner insisted that the case should not be considered a political feud.
“This has never been, in my view, a partisan fight. This is about a principle in our business that people ought to adhere to,” Boehner said, recalling his well-known freshman experience in bringing the House bank scandal to public view.
Still, Boehner said that he was always open to a resolution of the case with McDermott, which has caused both men to drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pockets of campaign contributors to pay the legal bills. Early last year, an intermediary approached Boehner to probe whether he would be interested in talking about a settlement of the case. Boehner indicated he was willing to talk, and a few hours later McDermott showed up in his office.
“He came right in this office. He marched in and sat down,” Boehner said, noting that before that visit he had never even once spoken to McDermott during his 12 years in the House.
Boehner described the conversation and a dozen more that followed in both his office and off the House floor over the next few months as “pleasant” and “very open.” Boehner had three conditions he said would have to be met in order to settle the case: McDermott would have to admit that his actions were wrong; would have to publicly apologize to the House; and would have to make a financial contribution to a charity as a sign of contrition.
“We talked about a dozen times. And in the end about as close as we got was that he was willing to apologize to the House that this all happened but he would not admit that he was wrong. And he was unwilling to make any kind of a financial contribution,” Boehner said.
McDermott, through his attorney, declined to comment. But the attorney, Frank Cicero of Kirkland & Ellis, said he “finds it rather strange that a litigant after six years decides to go to a public forum when he has a case pending.
“It’s our position, and I think it is pretty clear, that the Supreme Court settled the matter with respect to constitutional protections for what McDermott did,” Cicero said. “The idea that just because he chose to file a complaint McDermott should come and apologize to him and the House and admit he was wrong when the Supreme Court said he wasn’t wrong strikes me as rather strange.”
The two lawmakers held their last discussions in late July, just as their legal case was brewing once again over whether depositions could be taken from other lawmakers.
“In the end he wouldn’t admit that he was wrong. Even though he had admitted that he had done it he wouldn’t admit that it was wrong,” Boehner said, as he lit another in a chain of cigarettes. “I don’t think that he truly believes that what he did was wrong.
“So from where I sit, I don’t have any choice but to pursue the litigation, as unpleasant as that may be,” Boehner said.