Ruth Marcus
Ruth Marcus
Opinion Writer

Newt Gingrich’s revisionist history

For a man who likes to tout his expertise as a historian, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has a decidedly revisionist approach when it comes to his own history.

In 1997, Gingrich became the only speaker in history to be reprimanded by the House of Representatives. He agreed to pay $300,000 to settle the matter, which involved using charitable groups to promote his political views and submitting misleading documents to the House ethics committee.

Ruth Marcus

An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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The ethics charges sound like ancient history. They involve dreary matters of tax law. But the episode is worth revisiting because it offers insights into Gingrich’s bombastic, push-the-boundaries style. More troubling, in recent days, Gingrich has been blatantly dishonest in his self-interested rewriting of this history, dismissing the ethics sanction as the action of “a very partisan political committee.”

As Gingrich relates the story, “The Democrats filed 84 charges against me; 83 were dismissed. The only one which survived was the fact that my lawyers had written a letter inaccurately and I signed it.”

Referring to California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who served on the panel, Gingrich said last week, “If she was in the middle of it, how nonpartisan and just do you think the process was?”

How partisan? The ethics panel, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, voted 7 to 1 in favor of the reprimand. The dissenting Republican, Lamar Smith of Texas, said Gingrich had made “real mistakes” but called the penalty “way too severe.”

The House agreed to the reprimand by a similarly overwhelming margin, 395 to 28. “The penalty is tough and unprecedented,” the committee chairman, Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson, said on the House floor. “It is also appropriate.”

Another Republican on the ethics panel, Porter Goss of Florida, said he found “the fact that the committee was given inaccurate, unreliable and incomplete information to be a very serious failure on [Gingrich’s] part.” Indeed, Gingrich’s own lawyer told the ethics committee that the speaker “recognizes the serious nature of the charges and the seriousness of his admission.”

The ethics investigation stemmed from a Gingrich-inspired enterprise during the early 1990s to spread his conservative message — and engineer a Republican takeover of Congress — through a satellite broadcast and a college course that would also be televised.

Both efforts were connected with GOPAC, a political action committee that Gingrich then headed, and were funded by tax-deductible contributions to various nonprofit groups.

For example, the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, originally designed to help inner-city youth, served as the vehicle to fund the satellite broadcast. GOPAC lent money to the Lincoln foundation to take over the program, then steered its donors to the foundation and was ultimately repaid by the charitable group.

In Gingrich’s defense, the Internal Revenue Service concluded that the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which underwrote the college course, should not lose its charitable status. After initially revoking the tax-exempt status of the Lincoln foundation, the IRS agreed to reinstate it.

Yet the tax questions show Gingrich’s characteristic willingness to skirt close to the edge, if not beyond. Having been involved in a previous case about the permissible use of charitable groups, Gingrich “had ample warning that his intended course of action was fraught with legal peril,” the committee’s report found. The speaker’s own tax lawyer said he would have advised against the “explosive mix.”

The ethics committee ultimately concluded that Gingrich was, at the very least, reckless in not seeking tax advice.

Then there was the matter of repeated incorrect statements made to the committee as part of the effort to persuade it to dismiss the case. Gingrich twice assured the committee — incorrectly — that GOPAC played no role in developing or financing the college course.

Gingrich blamed the inaccurate statements on his lawyer and said he did not review the letters carefully enough. The four members of the investigative subcommittee found that there was “reason to believe” that Gingrich knew the information was wrong. But they settled for Gingrich’s admission that he “should have known” it was false.

“The violation does not represent only a single instance of reckless conduct,” the report found. “Rather, over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities.”

This is the bipartisan judgment of his peers. Is Gingrich really the man Republicans want to be their nominee?

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

 
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