What really happened in the Gingrich ethics case?

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The Romney campaign has been hitting Newt Gingrich hard over the 1990s ethics case that resulted in the former Speaker being reprimanded and paying a $300,000 penalty. Before the Iowa caucuses, Romney and his supporting super PAC did serious damage to Gingrich with an ad attacking Gingrich's ethics past.  Since then, Romney has made other ads and web videos focusing on the ethics matter, and at the Republican debate in Tampa Monday night, Romney said Gingrich "had to resign in disgrace."

In private conversations, Romney aides often mention the ethics case as part of their larger argument that Gingrich would be unelectable in a race against President Obama.

Given all the attention to the ethics matter, it's worth asking what actually happened back in 1995, 1996, and 1997.  The Gingrich case was extraordinarily complex, intensely partisan, and driven in no small way by a personal vendetta on the part of one of Gingrich's former political opponents. It received saturation coverage in the press; a database search of major media outlets revealed more than 10,000 references to Gingrich's ethics problems during the six months leading to his reprimand.  It ended with a special counsel hired by the House Ethics Committee holding Gingrich to an astonishingly strict standard of behavior, after which Gingrich in essence pled guilty to two minor offenses.  Afterwards, the case was referred to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter.  And then, after it was all over and Gingrich was out of office, the IRS concluded that Gingrich did nothing wrong.  After all the struggle, Gingrich was exonerated.

I wrote about the matter at the time, first in a 1995 article about Gingrich's accusers and then in a 1999 piece on the Internal Revenue Service report that cleared Gingrich.  (Both pieces were for The American Spectator; I'm drawing on them extensively, but unfortunately neither is available online.)

At the center of the controversy was a course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 at two small Georgia colleges. The wide-ranging class, called "Renewing American Civilization," was conceived by Gingrich and financed by a tax-exempt organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Gingrich maintained that the course was a legitimate educational enterprise; his critics contended that it had little to do with learning and was in fact a political exercise in which Gingrich abused a tax-exempt foundation to spread his own partisan message.

The Gingrich case was driven in significant part by a man named Ben Jones.  An actor and recovered alcoholic who became famous for playing the dim-witted Cooter in the popular 1980s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, Jones ran for Congress as a Democrat from Georgia in 1988.  He won and served two terms.  He lost his bid for re-election after re-districting in 1992, and tried again with a run against Gingrich in 1994.  Jones lost decisively, and after that, it is fair to say he became obsessed with bringing Gingrich down.

Two days before Election Day 1994, with defeat in sight, Jones hand-delivered a complaint to the House ethics committee (the complaint was printed on "Ben Jones for Congress" stationery). Jones asked the committee to investigate the college course, alleging that Gingrich "fabricated a 'college course' intended, in fact, to meet certain political, not educational, objectives." Three weeks later, Jones sent the committee 450 pages of supporting documents obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act.

That was the beginning of the investigation.  Stunned by their loss of control of the House -- a loss engineered by Gingrich -- House Democrats began pushing a variety of ethics complaints against the new Speaker.  Jones' complaint was just what they were looking for.

There's no doubt the complaint was rooted in the intense personal animus Jones felt toward Gingrich.  In 1995, I sat down with Jones for a talk about Gingrich, and without provocation, Jones simply went off on the Speaker.  "He's just full of s--t," Jones told me. "He is. I mean, the guy's never done a damn thing, he's never worked a day in his life, he's never hit a lick at a snake. He's just a bulls--t artist. I mean, think about it. What has this guy ever done in his life?…Gingrich has never worked. He's never had any life experience. He's very gifted in his way at a sort of rhetorical terrorism, and he's gifted in his way at being a career politician, someone who understands how that system works and how to get ahead in it, which is everything that he has derided for all these years. So I think he's a hypocrite, and I think he's a wuss, and I don't mind saying that to him or whoever. To his mother -- I don't care."

At that point, Jones leaned over to speak directly into my recorder.  Raising his voice, he declared: "HE'S THE BIGGEST A--HOLE IN AMERICA!"

Jones and his partner in the Gingrich crusade, Democratic Rep. David Bonior -- they had been basketball buddies in the House gym -- pushed the case ceaselessly.  Under public pressure, the Ethics Committee -- made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats -- took up the case and hired an outside counsel, Washington lawyer James Cole, to conduct the investigation.

Cole developed a theory of the case in which Gingrich, looking for a way to spread his political views, came up with the idea of creating a college course and then devised a way to use a tax-exempt foundation to pay the bills. "The idea to develop the message and disseminate it for partisan political use came first," Cole told the Ethics Committee. "The use of the [the Progress and Freedom Foundation] came second as a source of funding." Thus, Cole concluded, the course was "motivated, at least in part, by political goals." Cole argued that even a hint of a political motive, was enough to taint the tax-exempt project, "regardless of the number or importance of truly exempt purposes that are present."

Cole did not argue that the course was not educational.  It plainly was.  But Cole suggested that the standard for determining wrongdoing was whether any unclean intent lurked in the heart of the creator of the course, even if it was unquestionably educational.

Meanwhile, Democrats kept pushing to raise the stakes against Gingrich. "Anyone who has engaged in seven years of tax fraud to further his own personal and political benefits is not deserving of the speakership," Bonior said just before Christmas 1996. "Mr. Gingrich has engaged in a pattern of tax fraud, lies, and cover-ups in paving his road to the second highest office in the land…I would expect the Justice Department, the FBI, a grand jury, and other appropriate entities to investigate."

With the charges against Gingrich megaphoned in the press, Gingrich and Republicans were under intense pressure to end the ordeal.  In January, 1997, Gingrich agreed to make a limited confession of wrongdoing in which he pleaded guilty to the previously unknown offense of failing to seek sufficiently detailed advice from a tax lawyer before proceeding with the course.  (Gingrich had in fact sought advice from two such lawyers in relation to the course.)   Gingrich also admitted that he had provided "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable" information to Ethics Committee investigators.  That "inaccurate" information was Gingrich's contention that the course was not political -- a claim Cole and the committee did not accept, but the IRS later would.

In return for those admissions, the House reprimanded Gingrich and levied an unprecedented $300,000 fine.  The size of the penalty was not so much about the misdeed itself but the fact that the Speaker was involved in it.

Why did Gingrich admit wrongdoing? "The atmosphere at the time was so rancorous, partisan, and personal that everyone, including Newt, was desperately seeking a way to end the whole thing," Gingrich attorney Jan Baran told me in 1999. "He was admitting to whatever he could to get the case over with."

It was a huge victory for Democrats.  They had deeply wounded the Speaker.  But they hadn't brought him down.  So, as Bonior suggested, they sought to push law enforcement to begin a criminal investigation of Gingrich.

Nothing happened with the Justice Department and the FBI, but the IRS began an investigation that would stretch over three years.  Unlike many in Congress -- and journalists, too -- IRS investigators obtained tapes and transcripts of each session during the two years the course was taught at Kennesaw State College in Georgia, as well as videotapes of the third year of the course, taught at nearby Reinhardt College. IRS officials examined every word Gingrich spoke in every class; before investigating the financing and administration of the course, they first sought to determine whether it was in fact educational and whether it served to the political benefit of Gingrich, his political organization, GOPAC, or the Republican Party as a whole.  They then carefully examined the role of the Progress and Freedom Foundation and how it related to Gingrich's political network.

In the end, in 1999, the IRS released a densely written, highly detailed 74-page report.  The course was, in fact, educational, the IRS said. "The overwhelming number of positions advocated in the course were very broad in nature and often more applicable to individual behavior or behavioral changes in society as a whole than to any 'political' action," investigators wrote. "For example, the lecture on quality was much more directly applicable to individual behavior than political action and would be difficult to attempt to categorize in political terms. Another example is the lecture on personal strength where again the focus was on individual behavior. In fact, this lecture placed some focus on the personal strength of individual Democrats who likely would not agree with Mr. Gingrich on his political views expressed in forums outside his Renewing American Civilization course teaching. Even in the lectures that had a partial focus on broadly defined changes in political activity, such as less government and government regulation, there was also a strong emphasis on changes in personal behavior and non-political changes in society as a whole."

The IRS also checked out the evaluations written by students who completed the course. The overwhelming majority of students, according to the report, believed that Gingrich knew his material, was an interesting speaker, and was open to alternate points of view. None seemed to perceive a particular political message. "Most students," the IRS noted, "said that they would apply the course material to improve their own lives in such areas as family, friendships, career, and citizenship."

The IRS concluded the course simply was not political.  "The central problem in arguing that the Progress and Freedom Foundation provided more than incidental private benefit to Mr. Gingrich, GOPAC, and other Republican entities," the IRS wrote, "was that the content of the 'Renewing American Civilization' course was educational...and not biased toward any of those who were supposed to be benefited."

The bottom line: Gingrich acted properly and violated no laws.  There was no tax fraud scheme. Of course, by that time, Gingrich was out of office, widely presumed to be guilty of something, and his career in politics was (seemingly) over.

Back in January 1997, the day after Cole presented his damning report to the Ethics Committee, the Washington Post's front-page banner headline was "Gingrich Actions 'Intentional' or 'Reckless'; Counsel Concludes That Speaker's Course Funding Was 'Clear Violation' of Tax Laws." That same day, the New York Times ran eleven stories on the Gingrich matter, four of them on the front page (one inside story was headlined, "Report Describes How Gingrich Used Taxpayers' Money for Partisan Politics"). On television, Dan Rather began the CBS Evening News by telling viewers that "only now is the evidence of Newt Gingrich's ethics violations and tax problems being disclosed in detail."

The story was much different when Gingrich was exonerated. The Washington Post ran a brief story on page five. The Times ran an equally brief story on page 23. And the evening newscasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC -- which together had devoted hours of coverage to the question of Gingrich's ethics -- did not report the story at all. Not a word.

Gingrich himself, not wanting to dredge up the whole ugly tale, said little about his exoneration. "I consider this a full and complete vindication," he wrote in a brief statement. "I urge my colleagues to go back and read their statements and watch how they said them, with no facts, based on nothing more than a desire to politically destroy a colleague."

Now, Gingrich is saying much the same thing in the face of Romney's accusations.  And despite the prominence of the matter in the GOP race, few outsiders seem inclined to dive back into the ethics matter to determine whether Gingrich deserves the criticism or not.  But if Gingrich is to have any hope of climbing out from under the allegations, he'll have to find some way of letting people know what really happened.

Note: Despite the broadcast networks' decision to ignore the story of Gingrich's exoneration, in 1999 CNN did take the time to cover it.  Here is their report from the time:

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