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January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Ethics and Judgment Problems

There's an old saying: in politics, perception is reality. Public perception regarding Newt Gingrich is that the former Speaker has, to put it mildly, ethical issues.

Despite frequent counterarguments that this perception is attributable to media lies and bias, it's not hard to see where it comes from. Mr. Gingrich is now on his third marriage. His serial adultery troubled potential conservative supporters (hard to blame that one on the media elite) enough that they demanded - and received - an utterly meaningless no-more-adultery pledge from the former Speaker. Having previously chosen to ignore not one, but two no-adultery pledges similar promises to his first two wives, how seriously should we take a promise made to total strangers?

Oddly, when money was involved Newt's aggressive "Have you no decency?" shtick was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the candidate meekly offered up another promise, the underlying assumption of which is that he cannot be trusted to obey his current wedding vows. What is such a pledge, if not an admission that his questionable judgment in personal matters is a legitimate concern to voters?

But then we're talking about a candidate who suggested that making millions of dollars buying up troubled companies and restructuring them is a shameful act best atoned for by giving the money back. When his opponent returned the favor by suggesting that money earned lobbying for taxpayer backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be returned, Mr. Gingrich belatedly discovered the weaknessnes in his former line of attack. But no matter - and no need to take responsibility! It turns out that Barack Obama made him say those awful things!

“It’s an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background. Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect. … I agree with you entirely.”

- A True Conservative, explaining how Barack Obama forced him to say things he doesn't really believe.

Every candidate tries to create a brand: a simple message that communicates who and what they are. In Gingrich's case, the deep schism between his words and deeds sends a decidedly mixed message. "I'm a fighter. You can trust me to champion conservative ideas... unless of course I'm temporarily brainwashed by an Echo Effect emanating from the Oval Office... or asked for a politically correct, redundant pledge not to cheat on my wife."

In the Washington Examiner, Byron York takes on Newt's other ethics perception problem - his conduct while in office:

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.

York's account, so far as it goes, is truthful but his arguments are disturbing on several fronts. They echo those of the Speaker whenever Newt's refusal to honor his wedding vows, his lobbying activities, or the turmoil he created as Speaker of the House during the Reagan (Oops! thanks for the correction, Don!) Bush years are raised. Questions of substance are deflected by accusations of media bias or petty partisan motivation. In the Examiner, York devotes the bulk of his defense to analyzing the motivation of Gingrich's accusers. But the salient question here is not whether Democrat-sponsored investigations were partisan in nature (duh...), but whether there was a reasonable basis for them. It is notable here that Gingrich's own characterizations of the investigation are demonstrably untruthful. The committee was not, in fact, partisan:

The ethics panel was far from a “partisan” committee. Three of the panel’s Republican members joined all four Democrats in the 7-1 vote to recommend that the full House reprimand Gingrich — on a single charge of misleading the committee.

York also failed to mention the disturbing fact that 88% of House Republicans voted to approve the sanction and $300,000 penalty. Clearly the vast majority of Newt's own party members were disturbed by his behavior. Are they partisan too? York also found it unnecessary to mention Gingrich's involvement in the House Banking Scandal:

When both were serving in the House in the early 1990s, Mr. Santorum said Mr. Gingrich resisted helping him expose abuses at the House-run bank. The extensive practice of members writing bad checks became a major scandal that rocked Washington and eventually led to ethical reprimands for 22 members of Congress, as well as convictions of four former members, a delegate and the House sergeant-at-arms.

...Neither Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich mentioned Mr. Gingrich’s own vulnerability in the banking scandal — that he had 22 kited checks, including a $9,463 check to the Internal Revenue Service.

I'm fairly certain that if I kited a $9,000 check to the IRS, I would be in serious trouble with the law, but also with my own conscience. This is hardly a moral grey area. I've excerpted the article for the sake of brevity but I encourage you to read the whole thing. Gingrich's check kiting can not be breezily dismissed as mean spirited partisan attack or a minor breach of Byzantine House rules:

His 22 overdrafts including a $9,463 check to the IRS was a major issue in his re-election campaign that year and nearly cost him his seat which the then House Republican Minority held by a razor-thin margin of 982 votes that fall.

That kind of deflection is a problem as are selective, strategic omissions of the historical record.

Newt Gingrich rose to power by accusing prominent Democrats of ethical and moral lapses. When a politician does that, his own record had better be squeaky clean. He began his political career by going after House Speaker Jim Wright for a book deal that he claimed violated House rules. But Gingrich's own book deals soon drew similar - and utterly predictable - scrutiny. A second Gingrich book deal generated ethical questions from impertinent CNN news anchors his fellow conservatives:

Mr. Gingrich, who made his reputation attacking the ethics of Democratic lawmakers, also conceded that many Republicans apparently believed that the enormous advance gave the appearance of improperly profiting from the party's electoral success.

He said he had made his decision before Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who will become the Senate majority leader next week, publicly criticized the proposed contract on Thursday. Mr. Gingrich said he had heard conflicting advice from friends and associates. But in the end, he said, he was convinced that the advance gave off the wrong signals.

He said he was particularly taken by the remarks of an "older precinct committeeman" in Lancaster, Pa., who was said to have told Representative Robert S. Walker, "Tell our new Speaker we all worked for this victory, and he should not take advantage of our efforts."

Mr. Gingrich said: "You know, sometimes you hear things and something you haven't quite gotten suddenly becomes clear. And I realized that we really owed it to every person who was on the team to say to them, "We don't want anyone at any level to think we're taking any advantage.' "

Mr. Gingrich, in a tone of amiable puzzlement, attributed the dispute partly to his own charged position in political life and partly to an "age of extraordinarily cynical, adversarial press, an age of a White House press corps that devoured Carter, tried to devour Reagan and lost, devoured Bush and are now working on devouring Clinton."

Mr. Gingrich's book deal has attracted a great deal of press attention, but it has come under especially strong criticism from some conservative columnists, including Robert Novak and William F. Buckley Jr.

In addition to whatever damage Mr. Gingrich feared the conflict could do to his legislative goals, a dispute over a lucrative book contract holds a special political edge for him. In one of his best-known attacks on Democratic ethics in the past, Mr. Gingrich helped bring about the downfall of a Democratic House Speaker, James Wright of Texas, in part by raising questions about Mr. Wright's sales of a vanity-press book, "Reflections of a Public Man."

Note that once again, Gingrich's judgment is being questioned, not by the snooty media elite, but by his fellow conservatives. Fast forward to 2011 to find the former Speaker embroiled in yet another controversy involving profits from one of his books:

Newt Gingrich has a non-profit organization focused on promoting leadership. That’s all well and good, except that the non-profit has also been sending a lot of money Newt’s way by buying up cases of his books, among other things.
A non-profit charity founded by Newt Gingrich to promote freedom, faith and free enterprise also served as another avenue to promote Gingrich’s political views, and came dangerously close, some experts say, to crossing a bright line that is supposed to separate tax-exempt charitable work from both the political process and such profit-making enterprises as books and DVDs. The charity, Renewing American Leadership, not only featured Gingrich on its website and in fundraising letters, it also paid $220,000 over two years to one of Gingrich’s for-profit companies, Gingrich Communications. It purchased cases of Gingrich’s books and bought up copies of DVDs produced by another of the former House speaker’s entities, Gingrich Productions.

In other words, Gingrich set up a self-licking ice cream cone. He can’t touch the money to his non-profit, but his non-profit can certainly be a customer for his other for-profit ventures. Which, while probably not technically illegal, certainly stinks.

A non-profit law blogger explains the issues involved:

...the report alleges that Gingrich founded and operated charities in a manner that necessarily benefitted his private profit-making entities and, to a lesser extent, his political ambitions. For example, the charity mentioned in the quoted text above purchased books and DVD's produced by Gingrich's for profit publishing companies and also paid for charter jets used by Gingrich to promote movies his private businesses produced.

...Charities must benefit someone in order to achieve a charitable purpose. But when that "someone" is an insider, the benefit seems less coincidental and more purposeful, as is the case when an insider "skims" profit for his own benefit.

This lengthy article outlines Newt's extensive intermingling of non-profit and for-profit ventures that seem to end up lining the former Speaker's pockets.

It's entirely fair to point out the media's notoriously uneven coverage of scandals involving Democrats and Republicans. It's also fair to note - as York correctly did - that ethics investigations are often launched for partisan purposes. But partisan motives don't necessarily mean there's no substance to allegations of misconduct. Nor does acquittal prove innocence.

Newt's accusations against Jim Wright were partisan in nature, so it's hardly surprising that they led to reciprocal scrutiny of Gingrich's handling of similar deals. The ensuing investigations and scandals cost American taxpayers money and created a useful distraction from the conservative agenda. His serial check kiting is unquestionably unethical. This is not even a grey area.

When a politician goes to Washington and uses his political contacts to make millions of dollars, that raises questions. When money is exchanged between tax exempt non-profits and for profit ventures that directly benefit said politician, people should be asking questions. Gingrich is hardly alone in this, but his conduct raises real questions - especially when his statements are contradicted by public records or he makes highly questionable claims:

In 2003, Gingrich gathered about two dozen Republican House members who opposed a $395 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit to pitch them on why they should support it, former Representative C.L. “Butch” Otter, who said he was in the room, said in an e-mail.

Otter, who supports Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries and is now governor of Idaho, said it was “obvious” to him and others in the room that they were being lobbied. The meeting occured as Gingrich was building the Center for Health Transformation, which was seeking financing from drugmakers.

Gingrich has also bragged of killing legislation, often a goal of lobbyists. During a Dec. 10 Republican presidential debate, he said he “helped defeat” a proposal to lower carbon emissions known as “cap and trade” through a nonprofit advocacy group he founded called American Solutions.

’Influence Peddling’
“Gingrich’s boasting reveals, truly, what he was doing: He was working for and against specific legislation. That’s lobbying,” said Craig Holman, who pushes for tougher lobbying and campaign finance laws as a lobbyist for Washington-based Public Citizen. “When it comes to promoting or attacking or defeating legislation, that is influence peddling.”

Energy companies are among the top donors to American Solutions. The group took in more than $1.3 million from two of them, Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU) and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN), during the last two election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money in Washington.

The entanglement of Gingrich's empire of non-profit, not for profit, and for profit groups with lobbying is troubling to me. It may or may not be illegal but it is morally questionable, especially when millions of dollars flow from interested parties to an impenetrable network of tightly coupled 527s, non-profits, and for-profit enterprises.

When a politician deliberately chooses to question the ethics of his politican opponents, it should surprise no one if they retaliate in kind. If Mr. Gingrich sincerely believes ethics are important (as opposed to being merely a convenient weapon to bash his opponents with), we should expect his personal and professional life to meet the standards he publicly champions. He can't skirt the law or push the boundaries.

That is clearly not the case here, and while I have no objection to setting the record straight with regard to the eventual ruling of the IRS on the charges presented to them, I do object to selective airbrushing of the historical record. One of the biggest complaints conservatives had during the 2008 election was the media's odd refusal to vet Barack Obama. If we think this vetting process is important, we should not be too quick to dismiss vetting of Newt Gingrich's record by attacking the motives of anyone who dares to ask questions.

All politics is partisan. What matters is not the subjective motives of various actors, but the facts on the ground. It is a virtual certainty that a Republican president will be on the receiving end of relentless media scrutiny. I don't believe Newt Gingrich's record can withstand such scrutiny. At a time when conservative ideas must gain traction and credibility with the American public, the last thing we need is to be continually distracted with accusations and investigations of the type Mr. Gingrich found so very useful during the Reagan years.

Posted by Cassandra at January 25, 2012 07:52 AM

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And I completely agree that he has clear ethics problems that will most likely be used to bludgeon him in a general election, and that he SHOULD be properly vetted. I don't think Mr. King's question in the SC debate was a serious attempt to "vet" him. It was intended to make him uncomfortable and to shame him. Mind you, I don't know how he ISN'T more ashamed of his own behavior, but then again, I'm not a politician. But most saliently, I don't see how the King question could have brought anything new or unknown to the table. Did anyone NOT know Mr. Gingrich has a serial oath breaking problem? Did anyone NOT know he had trouble staying faithful to his wives? What exactly were we supposed to learn that we didn't already know?

Posted by: MikeD at January 26, 2012 12:16 PM

Newt was not Speaker of the House during the Reagan Administration (tiny nit to pick here). He did become the Minority Whip after Dick Cheney accepted the appointment as SecDef from GHW Bush in 1989.

Just this past year, Mr. Romney was unable to muster verbal support (while traveling in Ohio) for SB5, which was proposed by Gov. Kasich and passed by both Houses of the Assembly, to partially cap public employees pension and health care benefits and have them contribute a modest percentage (10%) to each to prevent municipalities from being strapped.
This was defeated at the ballot box last November. I doubt the endorsement of Mr. Romney would have had any impact at all on the outcome, but he clearly distanced himself from this while campaigning as he did not want this trouble hung around his neck like the proverbial albatross.

This bothered me a lot at the time, but I guess I will learn to get over it. I think Mitt Romney is a Republican, isn't he? Kasich also worked closely with Gingrich in the House in the 90's (he had the committee chair that Paul Ryan has now), and I wonder who he feels like endorsing?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 26, 2012 12:35 PM

I would argue that the question did bring something new to the table, Mike.

It appears that Mr. Gingrich, who certainly should have anticipated the question and been prepared for it, proceeded to make claims turned out not to be true.

This isn't the first time, mind you. When questions arose about his last divorce (I think - I keep losing track), he said it was initiated by his wife. But the divorce pleadings clearly show him filing and her saying she did NOT want a divorce even though she had ample grounds. I realize this was his second divorce, but Jeez - how do you "forget" something like that?

These are problems, and they're not all attributable to mean partisans or biased media. When provoked, he reflexively defends himself and his defenses are not holding up to scrutiny. That's a big problem.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 12:38 PM

Newt was not Speaker of the House during the Reagan Administration (tiny nit to pick here). He did become the Minority Whip after Dick Cheney accepted the appointment as SecDef from GHW Bush in 1989.

Thanks Don - that was my screw up. Not sure what I was thinking there - will correct!

I don't know if your pension thing bothers me or not. I would be hesitant to endorse a bill I had not read carefully. People get asked to endorse things all the time, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to decide the effort may not be worth it, especially if - as you say - your endorsement is unlikely to help and may well come back to bite you in the butt. Given the propensity to bury provisions or attach riders to legislation, I would tend to be cautious.

But that's just me. It's pretty well established that teh reason we don't get candidates who have a well established track record (and this is equally true of SCOTUS nominations) is a target rich environment for the opposition.

I think I'd rather be judged on what I had done in office than whether I was willing to get involved in the politics in another state. But then I'm one of them no-good pansy commie-loving RINOs :)

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 12:44 PM

FWIW, I do plan to address issues with Romney as well. I expect I will have trouble being totally objective as I much prefer him to Gingrich but I will try to address the objections I have seen. If others are raised that weren't on my radar screen, I will try to address them as time permits.

It's just that this has been bothering me for a very long time.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 12:49 PM

Howdy there Newt, pretty messy drawing you got there.

But, I colored between the lines!

Well Newt, them lines are a mite spread apart, you might want to tighten them up a bit.

But, those lines are where everyone here has always had them!

Well pardner, that might just be part of your problem.

Posted by: Allen at January 26, 2012 01:51 PM

Romney had endorsed Ohio SB5 in early 2011 after it emerged fromn the Assmebly and Kasich had signed it.

There was a petition drive to put it on the ballot last fall (it went down something like 60% to 40%), but when Mitt swung through Ohio last summer, he wasn't sure he had ever heard of it.

I understand he didn't want to be associated with a bill that was going to get trounced in the polls, but it just bothered me a bit.

Newt bothers me a lot in certain ways, but he seems to have a lot of the "right" enemies in politics. And Matt Drudge really hates him, too, in case you happen to look at the Drudge Report on any given day in the last week. :)

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 26, 2012 02:00 PM

I don't read Drudge, Don.

I can see (having just now read up on it) why this would bother you. I guess my only question would be why Newt's own flip flops (and they're thick on the ground) don't seem to bother anyone?

At the risk of sounding cynical, unreasonable ideological purity demands from interest groups make it damned hard for any candidate to win if he or she is consistent.

I can't decide for anyone else what they should value or trust. I only know how I make decisions: I try to look at the person's actual record (deeds over words). I don't assume I know what they think (I don't) and above all I refuse to try to box them into promises that leave them zero room to maneouver once in office. Compromise means one side bends in return for concessions from the other side.

The notion that this is going to magically go away is just plain delusional unless we figure out a way to brainwash the half of the country that doesn't want small government. They have to be reckoned with. Absent some sort of dictatorship (which I would *hope* conservatives would oppose) the ONLY way to effect change is to bargain with the other side. Large majorities are unsustainable, and any plan that depends on them is fatally flawed.

I prefer to look at how a candidate has actually governed. That's why I don't support candidates with zero executive experience - we don't know how they'll handle the office because they've never done it.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 02:32 PM

Say what you want about Newt, but at least he
If Newt could just get past
The problem with Newt is
One of Newt's myriad drawbacks is
The only off-putting personal failing that Newt doesn't seem to have is


If Newt were fleas we'd probably just put the dog down.

Posted by: spd rdr - husband, father, honey badger at January 26, 2012 03:02 PM

spd rdr - husband, father, honey badger

Oh, are you going to pay for that one :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 03:25 PM

I can't muster much interest in the ethics controversies, which all strike me as much ado about nothing. It bothers me more that Gingrich thoroughly alienated his colleagues in the House, and was such a flake that he managed to inspire his entire campaign staff to resign last year.

So, until Santorum is squeezed out of the race by a media blackout, I guess he's my guy. When it's down to Romney and Gingrich, I'm really going to have a tough time. In the fall, of course, A.B.O. And John King can blow me.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 26, 2012 04:42 PM

I could vote for Santorum, though his lack of executive experience would really, really bother me.

But in that case, the race would be between a guy with no exec experience (who has not managed to learn on the job) and an another guy with more legislative experience than Obama (Santorum) but no executive experience, I could persuade myself to pull the lever.

I agree with you wrt Gingrich alienating his colleagues. Most of the time in ethics investigations, the vote splits along party lines.

That it did not in this case tells me one of two things (or possibly both):

1. His colleagues just didn't feel they could defend him in good conscience (*cough*), OR...

2. He had so thoroughly pissed them off that they felt no loyalty to him.

Both possibilities are bad and don't bode well for him leading Congress to bring about "the change we need" :P

/running for the barricades

Posted by: Cassandra at January 26, 2012 04:58 PM

Posted by: EBL at February 17, 2012 12:10 PM