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Right Turn
Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 11/30/2011

Was Gingrich a lobbyist? He sure comes off that way.

Mitt Romney has finally begun to engage Newt Gingrich. Yesterday, he went after Gingrich, if not by name, by attacking him as a creature of Washington. The timing couldn’t have been better for Romney.

Today, the New York Times has a front-page piece documenting Gingrich’s activities, which by any reasonable person’s definition, constitute lobbying. This brings into focus the hypocrisy that is at the core of Gingrich’s personality. His view of himself (Churchillian, ”transformational,” “historian”) doesn’t match his own track record, which is a history of milking the Washington lobbyist-legislator connection for great personal wealth.

Federal law defines lobbying activity as “Lobbying contacts and any efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation or planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time of its preparation, for use in contacts and coordination with the lobbying activities of others.” And a lobbying contact is “Any oral, written or electronic communication to a covered official that is made on behalf of a client with regard to” congressmen and senators, among others.

Even before the Times story, there was ample evidence suggesting that Gingrich was engaged in this sort of lobbying activities. For example, Bloomberg reported, former Freddie Mac officials “say the former House speaker was asked to build bridges to Capitol Hill Republicans and develop an argument on behalf of the company’s public-private structure that would resonate with conservatives seeking to dismantle it.” Sounds like preparation for use in a lobbying contact, doesn’t it?

The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney expanded on the story, reporting: “A former employee of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, (the main industry lobby) told me Gingrich was being paid by someone in the industry at the time. A spokeswoman for Gingrich’s health care consulting firm, Center for Health Transformation, told me that drug companies have been CHT clients. PhRMA confirmed in a statement that they had paid Gingrich. Bloomberg News cited sources from leading drug companies Astra-Zeneca and Pfizer saying that those companies had also hired Gingrich.”

And what did he do? “Three former Republican congressional staffers told me that Gingrich was calling around Capitol Hill and visiting Republican congressmen in 2003 in an effort to convince conservatives to support a bill extending Medicare to include prescription-drug subsidies.” That’s lobbying. An attorney specializing in campaign laws told me on the phone today that this scenario, if accurate, is lobbying, plain and simple.

Now we get to the Times’s story:

[Gingrich] pressed for passage of a federal bill to increase the use of electronic health records, collaborating with one of its co-sponsors, Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, both Democrats. After appearing at a press briefing on the issue with Mrs. Clinton in 2005, he stated flatly on Fox News: “We’re launching a bill.” Mr. Gingrich’s ability to reach leaders like Mrs. Clinton was a selling point for the center. A PowerPoint presentation for prospective members advertised its “contacts at the highest levels” of federal and state government. Paying $200,000 a year for the top-tier membership, it said, “increases your channels of input to decision makers” and grants “access to top transformational leadership across industry and government.”

That sure sounds like “lobbying” as well.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Times in Florida has posted audio of Gingrich pitching legislators in that state. This activity isn’t covered by federal law, but if this is indicative of how Gingrich worked, it becomes hard to answer with a straight face that, in common parlance, Gingrich wasn’t “lobbying.”

Gingrich obviously didn’t want to register as a lobbyist and doesn’t think of himself in such terms. Naturally, his lawyers stood at the ready to help. But what’s the argument that all of this isn’t lobbying?

First, the Gingrich camp says he believed in his clients’ positions before he was hired. His lawyer tries out an improbable line on the Times:

In asserting that Mr. Gingrich has never engaged in lobbying, his aides say lawyers have thoroughly vetted all of his activities. Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer who has represented Mr. Gingrich since his days as House speaker, said none of Mr. Gingrich’s clients paid him to adopt a position that he did not already have.
“That matters a lot,” Mr. Evans said, “because there was never a point where we identified a client’s position first and decided, ‘O.K., that’s where we’re going.’ His vision always came first.”

This is, as one campaign law expert put it, “not even good fiction.” Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration official and now a partner in his own consulting firm, scoffed at this rationale. “The Gingrich standard seems to be that it’s not lobbying because he was previously sympathetic to the policies for which he advocated. That’s a novel distinction but unfortunately not one recognized in the law.”

The next Gingrich justification, his lawyer says, is that he followed “ ‘specific protocols and procedures’ that [his health-care outfit] designed to ensure he stayed within the law.” Well, where are those protocols and procedures, and what do they say? A Gingrich spokesman did not respond to my request for such documents, if they exist.

But this is all legal stuff, right? (It’s never a good idea to send your lawyer out to claim you’re not ethically challenged; People suspect that, if you need a lawyer to say it, you probably are.) The real issue is that Gingrich’s maneuvering with a high-priced lawyer to try to get around the rules for everyone else is precisely the sort of Washington-insider behavior that drives voters, especially Tea Partyers, nuts. Stepping back from the particulars of the law, Gingrich made millions and millions advocating for big government (e.g. Freddie Mac, ethanol, Big Pharma) and getting very rich doing so.

He somehow thinks that passes the smell test with average voters. But, really, what sort of legalistic nitpicking can conceal what he was up to? Gingrich’s tone-deafness was on full display yesterday when he said he couldn’t possibly have been lobbying sine he was getting $60, 000 per speech. Yowser.

None of this is helpful to Gingrich’s pitch that he’s a brilliant innovator who will shake up Washington. In fact, he made a mint shaking down Washington, and in the meantime, doing damage to the cause of limited-government activists.

By  |  12:49 PM ET, 11/30/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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