“It tells you how capriciously political [the House ethics] committee was that she was on it. It tells you how tainted the outcome was that she was on it.”
— Newt Gingrich, Dec. 5, 2011, talking to reporters about suggestions from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that she could reveal secret information from a 1990s House ethics investigation of the current GOP front-runner.
“I think what it does is it reminds people who probably didn't know this that she was on the ethics committee, that it was a very partisan political committee, and that the way I was dealt with related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than the ethics.”
— Gingrich, Dec. 6, 2011, answering questions about Pelosi and the ethics investigation during interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News.
“The attrition effect on your members of that many ads and that many charges just gradually wore down people, and I gradually lost the ability to lead, because I was so battered by the process.”
— Gingrich, Dec. 7, 2011, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Gingrich made these comments after Pelosi hinted that she could reveal damaging information about him “when the time’s right,” thanks to her involvement with a 1990 ethics investigation of the now-surging GOP candidate — a case that led to the first congressional reprimand of a House speaker.
We don’t question that Democrats relished the chance to nail Gingrich for ethics violations, especially after he gave the same treatment to former Democratic House speaker Jim Wright in 1988. But justice can still run its course fairly and impartially when enemies have blown the whistle, even if they enjoy watching you squirm.
We examined the congressional ethics committee that reprimanded Gingrich to find out more about its makeup. Was the panel truly as partisan as the Republican front-runner suggests, or has this prolific alternative-history writer crafted yet another fiction?
The congressional ethics panel that investigated Gingrich — when the GOP controlled the House — consisted of four Democrats and four Republicans, a perfectly bipartisan group that voted 7-1 to reprimand the then-speaker. Furthermore, the House voted 395 to 28 to support the committee’s decision, with backing from 196 Republicans.
No question about it, lawmakers didn’t vote along party lines in this matter.
However, Democrats did raise the issue first in 1994. The initial complaint came from former Democratic congressman Ben Jones, who had challenged Gingrich for his House seat that same year. (He also played auto mechanic Cooter Davenport in the hit TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.”)
Jones prompted the investigation by alleging that Gingrich had used tax-deductible donations to finance the Renewing American Civilization project, a college course that promoted conservative ideals.
Congressional Democrats cried for an investigation, initiating a long list of charges against the speaker. Republicans pushed back, and the House ethics committee dismissed most of the charges.
But Gingrich couldn’t buck two of the allegations: one suggesting he had violated federal tax law and the other saying he attempted to mislead the congressional panel during its investigation.
None of the tax-based allegations should have caught the former speaker off-guard. His attorneys had warned him in 1990 that he should not finance his college courses with tax-exempt funds, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that year.
The bipartisan ethics committee ultimately agreed that GOPAC, a Gingrich-led political training organization, had joined with a nonprofit group to raise funds for the speaker’s college course, which essentially served as a conservative promotional machine.
The program’s fundraising literature suggested prominent thinkers from various backgrounds would help shape the course’s content. But the thinking wasn’t so varied.
One funding request from 1993 highlighted a list of potential contributors, almost all of them well-known conservatives such as Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalist Robert Novak.
Gingrich’s course was open live to 150 people each year and through satellite uplink to many more. Participants didn’t have to be Kennesaw students. They could be students from other schools, and anyone at all “interested in better understanding the core principles of the American idea and how these principles can be applied to create a successful 21st century America.”
The House ethics committee said this about the situation in its final report:
“This was a coordinated effort to have the 501(c)(3) organization help in achieving a partisan, political goal. In both instances, the idea to develop the message and disseminate it for partisan, political use came first. The use of the 501 (c)(3) came second as a source of funding.”
Committee members also determined that Gingrich had tried to mislead the panel, which found no factual basis for “inaccurate statements” the former speaker made through his attorneys while trying to persuade the group to dismiss complaints against him.
Gingrich acknowledged the misstep and blamed his lawyers and staff, telling the panel that “the ball appears to have been dropped between my staff and my counsel regarding the investigation and verification of the responses submitted to the committee.”
The Republican icon also paid a $300,000 fine and admitted that he failed to keep partisan politics out of his class. The IRS eventually cleared Gingrich’s nonprofit of the allegations that it abused its tax-exempt status.
As for the older investigation of former House speaker Jim Wright, Gingrich filed ethics charges against the one-time Democratic leader in 1988, alleging he had benefited improperly from speaking engagements related to his book “Reflections of a Public Man.” Wright resigned before the committee made a determination in the case.
Many political experts blame that Gingrich-inspired investigation for politicizing the ethics process and fostering an excessively polarized environment that persists to this day in the nation’s capital.
THE PINOCCHIO TEST
Members of the ethics committee may have been divided and partisan in their political ideology, but the group decided almost unanimously that Gingrich had violated ethics standards. The same goes for Congress, which voted overwhelmingly to reprimand the former speaker.
Gingrich’s history with ethics investigations — both his own and that of Wright — serve as proof that those who live by the sword die by the sword. He has little room to complain about Democrats having brought charges against him, nor does he have any basis to suggest the panel made a partisan decision to reprimand him.
In fact, the only thing provably “partisan” in Gingrich’s case was the former speaker’s college course. The ethics committee used that exact word to describe it.
Gingrich earns four Pinocchios for suggesting the ethics committee acted in partisan fashion, and for trying to rewrite history by pretending he succumbed to Democratic attacks when he actually acknowledged wrongdoing.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker