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Romney gets the facts wrong on Gingrich’s ethics case

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Mitt Romney has again mangled the facts about the ethics investigation of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the circumstances surrounding his resignation.

In an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” Monday morning, Romney said of his GOP presidential rival: “His experience as speaker of the House end[ed] so badly, with an ethics scandal and him having to resign in disgrace and with his own members, 88 percent of them Republican members, voting to reprimand him.”

There was indeed a reprimand, and there was a resignation. But the two events occurred nearly two years apart and did not have anything to do with each other.

The Washington Post’s own Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, has already taken Romney’s campaign to task for a similar distortion in an ad. But now that it is coming directly from the frontrunner’s lips, it is worthwhile to revisit those events to see how they really played out.

In January 1997, the House voted to sanction then-Speaker Gingrich and impose a $300,000 penalty over an ethics issue involving whether it was proper for a tax-exempt foundation associated with Gingrich to finance a college course that he had put together.

As our colleague Paul Kane wrote recently, the penalty was meant to cover the cost of the investigation, which was prolonged by an examination of whether Gingrich “knew or should have known” that some of the documents he turned over to the House Ethics Committee contained false information.

Kane also noted that this was a time when the two parties in the House were using ethics investigations as political warfare. (Indeed, Gingrich himself had led the charge on the scandal that brought down Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright (Tex.) in 1989.)

As Kane wrote, “Soon after the Gingrich vote in 1997, the House’s Republicans and Democrats reached an unofficial detente in the ethics wars, leading to an eight-year run in which no lawmaker filed a complaint against another.”

Two years later, the Internal Revenue Service — having conducted its own investigation--determined that there was nothing illegal about the arrangement. The IRS concluded that the course was indeed “educational in content” (as opposed to political), and that the Progress and Freedom Foundation’s support for it was “consistent with its stated exempt purposes.”

By then, however, Gingrich was out of office. But his resignation in November 1998 was not related to the ethics case — it was politics. His party unexpectedly lost seats in that year’s midterm elections. Gingrich had placed a big bet that Republicans would be rewarded for their pursuit of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment that year. The opposite happened.

At that point, Gingrich was deeply unpopular across the country, and his Republican conference in the House had lost faith in his leadership. When Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, indicated that he was prepared to bid for the speakership, Gingrich could see the writing on the wall and decided to step aside.

Livingston later took himself out of the running, when it was revealed that he had had an extramarital affair. The speaker’s gavel went to Rep. Dennis Hastert (Ill.).

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