Newt’s nasty debt problem


Former House speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen on July 1. (Matthew Staver/Bloomberg)

It has been more than two years since former House speaker Newt Gingrich -- once viewed as Mitt Romney's top competition in the 2012 GOP primary -- ended his campaign. And he did so with an extremely unhappy balance sheet: nearly $5 million in debt.

That number is almost unheard-of in campaigns today. And, unfortunately for Gingrich, it's virtually unchanged as of today.

Since the beginning of 2013, Gingrich has attempted to pay down the debt, only to see it rise back up again. While he took a chunk out of it at the end of 2012, it's actually slightly higher today ($4.705 million) than it was 18 months ago ($4.667 million).

Gingrich started raising decent money in 2013 to pay off the debt -- between $88,000 and $121,000 per quarter for the first three quarters of the year -- but over the last nine months, the funds have dried up. He has raised less than $80,000 over the past nine months combined. And even if all of that money were to go to toward paying off his debate -- which it isn't -- it would take him decades to retire the debt.

He's having a hard time merely keeping up with the debt -- much less paying it off.

Gingrich owes nearly $1 million to Moby Dick Airways, a private air charter company. He owes FedEx almost $36,000. He owes legal fees totaling more than $280,000. He owes more than $407,000 to a security firm. He also owes nearly $650,000 to himself -- for travel expenses Gingrich apparently paid for on his own dime.

A Gingrich aide, Taylor Swindle, says the former speaker fully intends to pay off the debt. "The speaker is committed to the retirement of debt of the Newt 2012 presidential committee for as long as it takes," Swindle said.

Asked about the snail's pace, Swindle added, "We anticipate being able to do better during upcoming campaign seasons."

It's not unusual for campaigns to go into debt and to take some time to pay it off. Hillary Clinton also had millions in debt after her 2008 presidential bid, and Rudolph Giuliani had nearly $4 million.

Clinton, though, still had lots of people anxious to help her -- in addition to an assist from the Obama campaign -- and quickly paid off that debt.

Giuliani wasn't so lucky. Eventually, he agreed to a debt settlement plan under which he paid off nearly $3 million of the debt himself. The good news for Giuliani is that he was wealthy enough to take the hit in stride.

Others aren't so lucky. Former senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), for instance, went $3 million in debt in the 1984 presidential race. Despite being an American hero, he couldn't make a dent, either. He still owed nearly $2.7 million of that debt 23 years later, when the Federal Election Commission freed him of his obligations.

Gingrich, at 71, is not a young man. And given the massive debt he has incurred and his slow pace in paying it off, it's not clear whether he, like Glenn and Giuliani, will ever be able to balance out.

Paul Ryan, a campaign finance expert at the Campaign Legal Center, noted that Gingrich's campaign committee is seen as an individual entity, not necessarily tied to the candidate it supported. He said it will continue to owe the debt in perpetuity and that the forgiveness of debt a la Glenn is a "last resort."

"If a committee has existed on paper for years, but the humans associated with the committee (i.e., the committee’s officers) haven’t been raising or spending any funds, the FEC will administratively terminate the committee to get the committee off the FEC’s books, so to speak," Ryan said.

For Gingrich, though, the situation is something of a paradox. His campaign, after all, was kept afloat by multimillion-dollar donations to a pro-Gingrich super PAC from billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is not allowed to pay off Gingrich's debt today -- even if he wanted to.

For that, Gingrich will have to raise money the old-fashioned way -- or hope for a break from the FEC.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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