By Howard Kurtz
Joe diGenova and wife Victoria Toensing, the high-profile Washington superlawyers, have signed a deal to make regular appearances on the network's cable outlets, CNBC and MSNBC.
As if to underscore their insider status, Toensing said Tuesday night on MSNBC's "News With Brian Williams" that she'd just "had a meeting" with Newt Gingrich and that the House speaker "had a message for you." The message, she told Williams, is that a recent report that Gingrich is weighing impeachment hearings against both President Clinton and Vice President Gore is "absolutely false."
Toensing, a former federal prosecutor, and diGenova, a former U.S. attorney here, wear a number of hats. The law partners are the outside counsel for a House committee's investigation of the Teamsters union and its ties to the Democrats. The couple also represent the committee's Republican chairman, Dan Burton of Indiana, in a probe of whether he improperly demanded campaign donations from a lobbyist for Pakistan. Toensing represents Gingrich's wife, Marianne, on ethics matters. And the two are registered lobbyists for such groups as the American Hospital Association.
"I'm always identified as a Republican," Toensing said yesterday. "We enjoy doing [television]. To do it to the degree we were doing it, it's reasonable to be paid for it. It also means cutting out some of our other appearances" because of the exclusive arrangement with CNBC and MSNBC.
"We think they bring a unique perspective to the public dialogue," said NBC spokeswoman Kassie Cantor. "Neither Joe nor Victoria makes any secret that they are on the conservative side. . . . As long as we clearly identify what their association is, there's no conflict and we're not doing any disservice to our viewers."
On the Williams newscast, however, Toensing was introduced as "a former deputy assistant attorney general" and "an MSNBC legal analyst" -- not as a Republican House investigator. But Cantor said Toensing "couldn't have been any clearer" because she said she'd just met with Gingrich. (The meeting, it turns out, concerned the Teamsters probe.)
During a break in a House hearing on the Teamsters yesterday, Toensing said the couple's House contract for the probe is a part-time arrangement -- $25,000 for 80 hours of work a month -- that allows them to retain other clients. In fact, she called their compensation -- each gets about $155 an hour -- "embarrassing" and a "first-year-out-of-law-school rate."
The two lawyers have frequently criticized Clinton and defended independent counsel Kenneth Starr on such NBC programs as "Meet the Press," "Today," "Rivera Live" and "Charles Grodin." The new contract, Toensing said, commits them to two hours a week on daytime programs and the rest on evenings and weekends.
It's hardly unusual these days for networks to hire political players after they leave government (George Stephanopoulos at ABC, Susan Molinari at CBS, Dick Morris at Fox). But it is rare for news organizations to pay commentators while they are on a government payroll.
The House Education and Workforce Committee has defended its part-time contract with diGenova and Toensing by saying it could not attract top legal talent if its attorneys had to give up their jobs. Democrats have been critical from the start.
"DiGenova and Toensing are acting as defense attorneys, consultants, advisers, investigators, lobbyists and representatives of the media," said Jim Jordan, a spokesman for committee's Democrats. "Our members see that as hopelessly conflicted." While they are welcome to become members of the "punditocracy," he said, "they should not simultaneously hold themselves out as detached, serious and fairly doing the public's business."
But Jon Brandt, a spokesman for Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who chairs the subcommittee investigating the Teamsters, said his boss "was aware that Joe and Victoria had this agreement with NBC, and he has no concerns as long as they fulfill their contractual obligations."
Toensing dismissed the criticism, saying the Democrats are simply trying "to make anybody who's doing an investigation ineffective. They've tried everything. This is all they can get us on."
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