WASHINGTON — Potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich quietly lined up $150,000 to help defeat Iowa justices who threw out a ban on same-sex marriage, routing the money to conservative groups through an aide's political committee.
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker who is courting the conservatives who dominate Iowa's lead-off presidential caucuses, raised the money for the political arm of Restoring American Leadership, also known as ReAL.
That group then passed $125,000 to American Family Association Action and an additional $25,000 to the Iowa Christian Alliance — two of the groups that spent millions before last November's elections that removed three of the state's seven state Supreme Court justices. The court had unanimously decided a state law restricting marriage to a man and a woman violated Iowa's constitution.
The financial transfers, which appear to comply with campaign finance laws, were part of a steady flow of cash into Iowa from conservative groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council.
The spending comes as Gingrich is seeking to make allies among social conservatives who drive the caucuses, though some voters might question whether an outsider should be raising money for a contentious ideological fight confined to one state.
Presidential candidates regularly raise money for state legislators as a way to ingratiate themselves. But Gingrich's behind-the-scenes role in one of the nation's most contentious ballot measures last year was unusual. There are a number of companies and nonprofits that Gingrich founded or lent his credibility to after his resignation from Congress.
Longtime Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler is chairman of ReAL, which operates with the goal of preserving "America's Judeo-Christian heritage by defending and promoting the three pillars of American civilization: freedom, faith and free markets." Gingrich has no legal role in the operations, although he carries the title of honorary chairman and lends his name to fundraising. The group's website, in turn, promotes Gingrich's books, television appearances and films.
Gingrich's involvement with the plan to oust the justices started last year when he met privately with hundreds of pastors and their spouses. The effort seemed tailored for social conservatives, whose support Gingrich will need if he is to mount a credible campaign in Iowa and who may hesitate to back the thrice-married candidate.
He lined up the cash for ReAL Action, Tyler's activism arm. But Tyler said the political group backed away from running the anti-judges campaign itself; lawyers cautioned the spending could violate the group's nonprofit status, which requires that it remain somewhat aloof from electoral politics. The group was founded under a tax provision that allows it to keep donors anonymous but bars it from making politics its primary purpose.
So the money went to the two conservative organizations without specific instructions on how to use it, Tyler said.
Some are skeptical.
"It is not customary in the political world for large sums of money to shift hands without a clear objective," said Marcus Owens, a Washington attorney who for a decade led the Internal Revenue Service tax-exempt division. "To give money unfettered to organizations that have announced they are going to be undertaking a recall effort is not going to protect you."
Gingrich has moved toward a White House run but has made a few missteps in his opening days. An appearance some advisers thought would be a campaign kick-off turned into a simple quick statement because some advisers worried the private plane that ferried Gingrich to Atlanta could get him in trouble with campaign spending laws.
In recent weeks, he has sought to confront some of the ready-made attacks on his candidacy should he run, especially his two failed marriages. Reaching out to conservatives in Iowa and helping them boot judges could help his campaign thesis that voters care more about the present and the future than the past, which includes an ethics investigation that clouded his final days as speaker.
His exploratory committee's website features the former Georgia lawmaker with his third wife, Callista. When traveling, they are introduced as a team. And when Gingrich meets with key activists and donors, she is at his side.
On Tuesday, the couple announced on Twitter that they were in Philadelphia to film a documentary about the Constitution. Last week, Gingrich told supporters that he would announce a presidential bid in Philadelphia if he decided to enter the race.
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