Gingrich’s book-selling efforts test campaign laws

December 8, 2011

You would never know on the campaign trail that Newt Gingrich is no longer at the helm of his for-profit enterprise. There, his presidential candidate activities and book-selling business mingle as one.

In a hotel ballroom in Naples, Fla., last month, Gingrich regaled political supporters with a rousing stump speech — then sidled over to a table in the corner to sell books. In Charleston, S.C., a few days later, hundreds of fans crammed into a historic theater to listen to his pitch to be the next president — then lined up in the lobby to buy books.

The story is the same virtually everywhere Gingrich goes: a political speech here, a book-signing there — often in the same place. And Gingrich isn’t just selling one book. He has produced non­fiction, novels and documentary movies, and his wife, Callista, recently wrote a children’s book that she sells just about everywhere they go.

Their activities raise two appearances, both unsavory: that Gingrich is using his presidential bid to make money, and that he is using his business to juice his campaign. And although there is agreement that Gingrich is following the law, there remains a perception, in part because of how much money his businesses have earned him over the years, that what he’s doing isn’t quite right.

“Gingrich has a history of skating close to the line when it comes to the use of political money, and he’s gotten in trouble in the past,” said Fred Wertheimer, a lawyer with the campaign finance watch­dog group Democracy 21. “Whether he’s close to the line or over the line here is an open question.”

Gingrich is hardly the first politician to sell a book on the trail. But federal law prohibits candidates from using campaign resources to profit personally or from using corporate funds to subsidize a campaign.

Adhering to the law is tricky: In that Naples ballroom, assistants from the campaign and the business mingled to manage the crowd and the candidate. More than 800 supporters had come out to an event promoted and organized by the campaign.

Because of the sheer quantity of titles Gingrich has produced, few politicians have intertwined authorship with politics in quite the manner he has, and few have tested the law quite as directly as he is doing.

Gingrich was scrutinized nearly 20 years ago for a book deal he made shortly after becoming speaker of the House that featured the creation of a limited partnership, financed by Republican donors, to cover the book’s publicity costs. That scrutiny came not long after Gingrich helped bring down a predecessor, Democrat Jim Wright, by calling attention to a questionable book deal.

To make matters more complicated, federal election law is murky. There is widespread agreement that, without blocking book sales altogether, it is virtually impossible to adhere to the spirit of the law, which is to prevent either the campaign or the business from benefiting from the other.

“That tension is what makes it so important to be meticulous,” said Stefan Passantino, one of Gingrich’s lawyers. “We fully expect him to be criticized for this. It’s the nature of running for the highest office as Newt Gingrich.”

Campaign protocols

Passantino, who represents both the campaign and the publishing business, has produced a set of protocols governing how Gingrich Productions, which Gingrich turned over to Callista before formally launching his presidential bid, interacts with the campaign.

For instance, the expenses associated with paired events have to be strictly segregated. And where it’s unclear — the cost of airfare to a city for both types of events, for instance — Passantino defers to a Federal Election Commission advisory opinion that calls for the campaign to pay.

Any costs associated specifically with the books — transporting them to the book-signings, storing them — must be borne by the business, he said.

But the public must trust the campaign’s word on this, because its reports to the FEC aren’t required to showenough detail to figure out what travel costs it paid for.

The extent to which Gingrich Productions helps Gingrich for President — and vice versa — is obvious on the road. The Gin­griches collect signatures for the political campaign in the same places where they sign books. At Gingrich’s campaign Web site — www.newt.org — a schedule of events regularly promotes the book-signings, and a column called “Callista’s Canvas” features this link: “Callista Gingrich’s Ellis the Elephant, the Sequel, Coming Soon.”

Family affair

Callista Gingrich held her own storytelling and book-signing event at a Christian academy in Hilton Head Island, S.C., last week while her husband attended a private fundraiser nearby. More typically, the two Gingriches appear together, seated at a table after a political speech or at a local bookstore. Newt Gingrich is usually trying to sell his recent titles, “A Nation Like No Other” and “Rediscovering God in America.”

(The couple will be holding a book signing at Hudson News in Union Station on Friday at 4 p.m., according to the Web site.)

An FEC opinion issued this year stated that a campaign Web site may promote a book in a “de minimus” way. The opinion was issued to address the book tour earlier this year of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who was seeking guidance about promoting his book, using his campaign mailing list to sell the book and holding campaign events in cities where the book’s publisher had paid his travel costs. The FEC could not reach agreement about the last question, but previous opinions have suggested that the campaign should pay.

“Generally, the FEC is not so concerned about the campaign subsidizing the book tour as much as they are concerned about the corporation benefiting the campaign,” said Larry Noble, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.

In the end, nothing stops campaigns from using their political events to gin up book sales, said Paul Ryan, an election lawyer with the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.

“It would be flatly illegal for the campaign to buy the book and sell them for the profit of the Gin­griches,” Ryan said. “But if the person buying the book thinks they’re buying the book to help the political campaign, and they don’t really care about the book much, that would arguably be wrong too. If they’re selling books and pocketing the profit in a way that can be deemed part of a campaign, that looks a lot like converting campaign resources to personal use.”

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