Associates of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are stepping forward to rebut accusations from Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney that he resigned in “disgrace” and paid an ethics “fine.”
Gingrich insisted during a candidates debate Monday that reports he was fined $300,000 for House ethics violations are inaccurate and records back up his claim the payment was not a fine.
A Newsmax examination of the House Ethics Committee report, and the record of the House debate in January 1997 as recorded in the Congressional Record, supports Gingrich’s contention that the $300,000 he paid was a “reimbursement” or “sanction” related to legal fees, but not a fine or admission of any wrongdoing.
Many media accounts continue to refer to the payment as a fine, although the official Ethics Committee report on the matter, which the House accepted in its sanction of Gingrich, clearly indicated otherwise.
Gingrich paid the cost of legal bills associated with a multi-year House inquiry, which probed whether he had misused a tax-exempt organization he controlled for political purposes.
Sliding in the polls, Romney has opened a full broadside on Gingrich focused on the former speaker’s ethics issues. Gingrich felt the criticisim was significant enough on Monday to forcefully challenge Romney’s characterization of his term as speaker.
Gingrich said during the debate Monday that he asked fellow Republicans to vote in favor of the Ethics Committee report in order to put the matter to rest.
The 395-28 House vote accepting the report marked the first time a House speaker had been disciplined on an ethics matter. But Gingrich insists the allegations were politically motivated.
“The Democrats had filed 84 ethics charges for a simple reason,” Gingrich said Monday. “We had taken control of the House after 40 years, and they were very bitter.”
The ethics charges reportedly had their origins in a complaint filed against Gingrich in September of 1994 by then-Rep. Ben Jones, D-Ga., who was running against Gingrich for office. Among the allegations: That the speaker received inappropriate gifts and had received improper contributions from GOPAC, a political action committee he had once been in charge of.
Also, House Special Counsel James M. Cole alleged that a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization paid for two courses Gingrich taught at Georgia colleges. Cole stated that the courses, titled Renewing American Civilization, were “substantially motivated by partisan, political goals,” and therefore a violation of the organizations’ tax-exempt status.
The IRS launched a three-year probe to investigate that charge. It dropped its investigation after declaring that Gingrich’s courses were “educational in content.”
The report of the Select Committee on Ethics, titled “In the Matter of Representative Newt Gingrich,” was released Jan. 17, 1997. It stated that 70 people were interviewed during the investigation, and 150,000 pages of documents were reviewed.
The report stated that the committee, “by a roll call vote of 7-1, [is] recommending that Representative Gingrich be reprimanded and ordered to reimburse the House for some of the costs of the investigation in the amount of $300,000.”
It later stated that “the appropriate sanction should be a reprimand and a payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation in the amount of $300,000.”
And it quoted Special Counsel Cole as stating that “the appropriate sanction for the conduct described in the original Statement of Alleged Violations is a reprimand and the payment of $300,000 toward the cost of the preliminary inquiry.”
At no point did the report refer to the $300,000 as a fine, which would imply a judicially imposed penalty.
On Monday, Gingrich insisted: “And the fact is, on every single ethics charge of substance that was dismissed in the end, the only thing we did wrong is we had … one letter was in error. I didn`t pay a fine. I paid the cost of going through the process of determining it was wrong.”
Former GOP Rep. Bob Walker, who represented Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District from 1977 to 1997, came to the former speaker’s defense on Tuesday, and supported his account of what happened.
Walker said that Gingrich was “totally exonerated” on the 84 charges leveled by Democrats, which he described as “just malicious.”
But he said a mistake by the speaker’s attorney delayed the conclusion of the committee’s investigation and increased the probe’s cost to the public. Gingrich, he said, therefore agreed “to reimburse the committee $300,000, which it claimed was the cost of the additional investigation that they had to do” because of the discrepancy.
Walker is a Gingrich supporter who has been traveling with the Gingrich campaign in Florida.
“Ultimately, they came to the conclusion that Newt needed better representation,” Walker told Newsmax on Tuesday. “And actually, that’s what he was reprimanded for, for these documents that were misfiled with the committee. Newt agreed as they were finishing up the investigation, to reimburse the committee $300,000, which they claimed was the cost of the additional investigation that they had to do.
“So he personally stepped forward to reimburse the committee at that point,” Walker said. “In the committee report, it says specifically that this is a reimbursement by Newt Gingrich, and that it was not a fine. The Democrats of course immediately stepped forward and called it a fine, but on the House floor during the debate, and in the document itself, it makes the specific statement that there was no fine involved, that this was a reimbursement for the cost of the additional investigation.”
A transcript of the congressional debate held in January 1997 when the House voted to accept the Ethics Committee report, indicates members of both parties carefully avoided describing Gingrich's $300,000 payment as a fine.
The current House minority leader, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, described the action against Gingrich at the time as a “sanction,” not a fine.
Rep. Tom Borski, a Democrat who served on the Ethics committee, stated on the House floor that rather than seek a fine the committee had opted for “a payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation.”
Peter Goss, the chairman of the ethics subcommittee that probed the matter, described the sanction as “[an] official reprimand and a $300,000 cost assessment to Mr. Gingrich as sanction for his violation of House rules and as partial reimbursement for the costs of the inquiry that ensued.”
During the debate over the report’s findings that day, several members of Congress who did not serve on the Ethics Committee, and therefore who may have been less familiar with its findings, did refer to the $300,000 as a fine. But even then, one member who used the term “fine,” GOP Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey, immediately corrected herself.
“However, left unstated in this report and unresolved by the committee,” she said, according to the Congressional Record, “is the means by which the fine or cost assessment, that is, the reimbursement of $300,000 should be paid.”
Rep. Walker wasn’t the only member of Congress to step up to defend Gingrich’s record and dispute Romney’s characterization that he resigned in “disgrace.”
FreedomWorks chairman and former House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey told CNN: “Newt had problems, but I don’t think it was accurate to say he resigned in disgrace.”
Armey added: “By the time he left his speakership, he had resolved all the ethical allegations that had been alleged and formally charged against him.”
Despite the fact that the House Ethics Committee specified the payment by Gingrich was not a fine, reporters routinely continue to describe it that way.
A USAToday fact-checking piece published Tuesday said of Gingrich’s response: “Technically he’s correct. The Ethics Committee report [page 94] didn’t call it a fine, but rather a ‘payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation.’”
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