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Looter’s Way

Former Georgia congressman and "Dukes of Hazzard" star Ben Jones has launched an obsessive vendetta against House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And in Democratic whip Rep. David Bonior, he's found a PAC-pampered ally.

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A gifted young politician sets his sights on national office. After years of struggle he achieves his dream, only to be dogged by a jealous, bitter rival who schemes to sabotage his success. The rival approaches reporters, offering dirt for negative stories. He persuades authorities to launch investigations. And he appeals to the politician's enemies for help in his campaign.

Bill Clinton and Cliff Jackson? Not quite. Newt Gingrich has the power in Washington now, and he also has a Cliff Jackson of his own: former Georgia Representative Ben Jones. Unlike Jackson, who has no power base and few friends in the mainstream press, Jones has some powerful allies, including House Democratic Whip David Bonior. Together, Jones and Bonior have been assaulting Gingrich almost daily with soundbites and press releases.

Jones is an improbable crusader. An actor who played the dim-witted "Cooter" on the sitcom "The Dukes of Hazzard," he parlayed his TV fame and gregarious personality in 1988 into a seat in the House. Jones is also a recovered alcoholic whose wife once charged him with battery after an altercation in a bar, he survived revelations about his hell-raising past, in part because his Republican opponent was indisputably corrupt.

But four years later Jones was gone, defeated by redistricting and a liberal voting record that seemed out of touch with his constituents.

In 1994 Jones ran again, this time against Gingrich. It was an odd move. Gingrich had jumped to a new district in the suburbs north of Atlanta, a district that has been called one of the most Republican in America. Some observers wondered whether Jones entered the race not to win but to harass Gingrich. He certainly tried.

Bankrolled by the national Democratic Party, which gave him $68,152, Jones criticized Gingrich's travels around the country on behalf of Republican candidates. Accusing Gingrich of spending too little time at home, Jones occasionally showed up at Gingrich events around the country; once, in Alabama, he took along some hunting dogs, saying they were trying to pick up the scent of Newt. To contrast himself with Gingrich, Jones announced he wouldn't accept any contributions from political action committees—although, in a previous race, Jones took $416,333 from PACs.

Two months before election day, Jones hand-delivered a complaint to the House ethics committee—a complaint printed on "Ben Jones for Congress" stationery. He asked the committee to investigate "Renewing American Civilization," a course Gingrich taught at Kennesaw State College in 1993. Jones alleged that Gingrich "fabricated a `college course' intended, in fact, to meet certain political, not educational, objectives." Three weeks later, Jones sent the committee 450 pages of supporting documents obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. It didn't work, and Jones lost big on election day.

But losing didn't stop Jones's campaign against Gingrich; instead, it brought him together with Bonior. A dour ex-seminarian and social worker, the Michigan congressman was previously best known for his intense opposition to the Reagan administration's support of the Nicaraguan contras. In the months since the elections, he has become the Democrats' point man in the War on Newt. In November, Jones and Bonior met to plan the next step in their offensive. "David and I used to play a lot of basketball together [at the House gym], so I know him personally," says Jones. "What I told him was 'This complaint is serious, it's substantive, and we need to stay on this thing.'... He said 'Go for it.'"

And they did. On November 28, Bonior wrote a letter to the ethics committee passing on more of Jones's complaint about Gingrich's course. Then, in late January, Bonior sent the committee yet another release from Jones, one that focused on Gingrich's $4.5-million book deal. Bonior and Jones alleged that it was actually an outgrowth of the college course, which Jones maintained had improperly used congressional staff and resources. Jones and Bonior called for an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

Jones estimates he spends at least twenty hours a week on the project, talking to reporters, appearing on TV and talk radio, pressing the case. He insists he is receiving no help, financial or otherwise, from the Democratic Party. "I'm losing money on this deal," he says. "If I was getting paid by the hour what any ordinary lawyer in America makes, I'd be doing OK on this. But I'm not." He is assisted by Steven Jost, a Washington political fundraiser who worked for Jones's campaign against Gingrich. Jost fields calls and hands out a 71-page anti-Gingrich press kit free to anyone who asks. The kit contains the ethics complaints Jones filed, reprints of several newspaper articles, and fuzzy copies of phone bills, credit card receipts, and payroll records relating to the college course. Reporters are invited to call the Democratic National Committee if they have other questions.

The campaign is working. Jones has talked to journalists from virtually every major newspaper, magazine, and television organization in the country—and they're listening. "We carried the ball all the way and now we're getting a little help," Jones says. "And it's not just Bonior. Major editorials throughout the country have called for an outside counsel."

Jones believes the post-election campaign against Gingrich is more important than the real one last fall, because he's been able to, as he puts it, "bring things to light that are still being investigated and explored." But Jones claims he has a more personal reason for running against Gingrich and carrying on the ethics crusade. He told the Hill newspaper, "Every morning I'd wake up and ask God what His will for me was, and I couldn't get around the fact that this was the thing for me to do at this time in my life." It was, he says, simply the right thing to do.

Yet if one talks long enough with Jones, another, less godly motive emerges. After an hour of quietly discussing the case while sitting in the living room of his Washington townhouse, Jones drifts to his personal feelings about Gingrich. "He's just full of s--t" Jones says. "He is. I mean, the guy's never done a damn thing, he's never worked a day in his life, he's never hit a lick at a snake. He's just a bulls--t artist. I mean, think about it. What has this guy ever done in his life? There were guys like this in high school, remember? I mean, they would not rebound. And they didn't work. Maybe they always won the science project or something." Jones laughs and continues. "Gingrich has never worked. He's never had any life experience. He's very gifted in his way at a sort of rhetorical terrorism, and he's gifted in his way at being a career politician, someone who understands how that system works and how to get ahead in it, which is everything that he has derided for all these years. So I think he's a hypocrite, and I think he's a wuss, and I don't mind saying that to him or whoever. To his mother, I don't care." When the reporter begins another question, Jones leans over the tape recorder, raises his voice and says, "He's the biggest a--hole in America!"

While Jones works the media circuit from his Washington home (he also has residences in Georgia and New York), his basketball teammate David Bonior carries on the attack from Capitol Hill. Late last year, Bonior held a series of press conferences in which he blasted Gingrich for planning to accept the $4.5 million book advance. The deal presented serious problems, Bonior said: HarpetCollin.s, the publishing company involved, is owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose television properties have several issues before Congress. It was a clear conflict of interest, according to Bonior, and he called on Gingrich to give up the money. After Gingrich did drop the advance, opting instead to accept royalties on books sold, Bonior called the press to say even the royalties deal was suspect "I wouldn't do that," he said. "I wouldn't accept a royalty from someone who obviously has an interest to gain in very important legislation before this Congress."

It was a curious statement from a man who in recent years has accepted millions of dollars—millions--in campaign contributions from political action committees that represent corporations and unions with interests before Congress. Federal Election Commission records indicate that Bonior has taken large sums from an extraordinarily wide variety of contributors. (See box.) Potential conflicts of interest abound. Does the National Cable TV Association, from which Bonior accepted $15,000 in his last two campaigns, have business before Congress? Does the R.J. Reynolds Company, from which he accepted $16,500, have any such business? How about the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, site of Hillary Clinton's commodities windfall, which kicked in $20,000? Or BellSouth Corporation, which forked over $20,000? The United Steel Workers gave him $20,000. Chrysler added $12,000 to Bonior's coffers. Philip Morris Corporation contributed $11,000. Bonior even accepted $500 from FOXPAC, owned by none other than Rupert Murdoch.

His acceptance of these huge PAC contributions, like Gingrich's book deal, violates no laws. But Bonior cannot claim that everybody does it at his level. According to the Almanac of American Politics, Bonior collected $934,613 from PACs in 1992, which made him the fourth-highest PAC money recipient in the House of Representatives, behind Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt, California Democrat Vic Fazio, and Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski (whose departure under indictment makes it likely that Bonior has moved up to third). Gingrich, the only Republican in the PAC Top 20, collected $280,901 less than Bonior.

A few days before Christmas, Bonior brought a brightly wrapped present to a Capitol Hill press room. When everybody had arrived and the cameras were rolling, he opened the box to reveal a large, crudely lettered check which he said represented Gingrich's $4.5 million advance. Bonior's photoop soundbite—"This is an arrogant act…. Before he gets to the public business, he's taking care of his own private profits"—appeared on TV newscasts and in newspaper articles.

What many viewers and readers weren't shown was a question asked later in that same press conference. A reporter wanted to know: Hadn't Bonior also written a book? "I did," he replied. "I wrote a book on Vietnam veterans, and I think I probably made $500. Five, six hundred dollars, I don't remember exactly."

Bonior wrote The Vietnam Veteran: A History of Neglect, which was published by Praeger Press in 1984. The book is still available today; the hardcover, intended for purchase by libraries, sells for $49.95, and the paperback, aimed at the college textbook market, lists for $13.95.

A week after he told reporters he made "five, six hundred dollars," he was asked about the book again. "I think I made $1,300 or something like that," Bonior said. The figure had more than doubled in a week. So how much money did Bonior make off the book? A spokeswoman for Bonior refused to answer several oral and written requests for information about the book's sales and the congressman's income. And the publisher refused to release sales figures.

The Gingrich matter is now with the House ethics committee, where it will take a majority vote to appoint an outside counsel. Unlike other congressional committees, the ethics panel is evenly divided between the parties, five members each; assuming that all the Democrats vote against Gingrich, they'll still have to persuade one Republican to go along for a counsel actually to be appointed. That seems unlikely at best, although the resulting headline—"House Panel Deadlocked on Gingrich Ethics Charges"—might be enough to satisfy many Democrats. In any case, the committee itself could investigate Jones's allegations without an independent counsel.

The Speaker dismisses the whole affair as sour grapes, but the attacks will no doubt continue, even multiply, as Gingrich opponents file complaints of their own. (Rep. Pat Schroeder and three other representatives filed complaints in late February.) As Democratic whip, Bonior will play a key role—and remain silent about his own ethics. But Ben Jones says his part in the campaign is nearly done. It's time to move on, he says. Among other things, he's planning to write a book—about Newt Gingrich.

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About the Author
Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.