In Michael Scherer’s piece (“Newt: I’m Shocked, Shocked by Abramoff Scandal!”), he falsely asserts that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was required to “pay a $300,000 penalty” for “misusing nonprofit organizations for political purposes, personally benefiting from political contributions and giving false statements to ethics investigators.”
Mr. Scherer should have checked the facts first. Democrats filed 84 politically motivated ethics charges against Speaker Gingrich. All of them were found to be without merit. The last three were dismissed on Oct. 10, 1998. The fact is, not a single ethics charge filed against Speaker Gingrich was ever found to be based in fact — not one.
During the investigation into the bogus charge of “misusing nonprofit organizations for political purposes,” a letter responding to an inquiry by the Ethics Committee prepared and filed by a Gingrich lawyer did contain an inaccuracy. When Gingrich learned about the discrepancy, he personally accepted responsibility for the misstatement, corrected the record, and agreed to reimburse the Ethics Committee for the cost of that investigation.
The voluntary reimbursement did not stem from the phony charge, but was paid because of the error made by counsel during the investigation — an investigation that concluded no wrongdoing by the speaker whatsoever and was dismissed by the bipartisan Ethics Committee as were all 84 of the other charges. It was specifically not a penalty according to the Ethics Committee agreement.
The fallout in the case resulted in an IRS investigation and a federal court case. Ultimately, Speaker Gingrich was cleared of any wrongdoing by the bipartisan Ethics Committee, the IRS and a federal judge.
So it is simply wrong to mislead readers by suggesting that Speaker Gingrich paid a fine, misused nonprofit organizations or personally benefited in any way from political contributions. The facts show that he took responsibility for an error during the investigation and reimbursed the committee from his personal funds making him extraordinarily well-qualified to be an outspoken critic on the current and very real ethics scandal.
Communications Director and Spokesperson
Thanks for the letter. But a couple of quick corrections: I knew the facts of Mr. Gingrich’s ethical problems when I wrote the story. And I never wrote that Gingrich paid $300,000 because of any specific claim against him.
Here is what I wrote: “By 1996, Gingrich found himself saddled with a number of ethical problems similar in type, though not in scale, to the Abramoff scandal. He was accused of misusing nonprofit organizations for political purposes, personally benefiting from political contributions and giving false statements to ethics investigators. The House eventually voted to reprimand Gingrich and require him to pay a $300,000 penalty.”
The $300,000 was not a classic punitive fine by the Ethics Committee, but it was, I believe, a clear penalty, albeit intended to repay the committee for costs incurred during the investigation. I am not alone in this belief. The Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all repeatedly described the $300,000 as a “penalty.”
I did not claim that Mr. Gingrich was convicted of, or admitted to, any specific ethical violation. I was simply drawing a parallel between Mr. Gingrich’s alleged ethical problems from 1996 to 1998 and the alleged ethical problems now facing DeLay and others. DeLay and his embattled colleagues in Congress have not been charged or convicted in connection with the Abramoff scandal.
As for whether or not the $300,000 payment was voluntary, I cannot speak to Mr. Gingrich’s intentions at the time, or the details of his negotiations with other members of Congress. But the House did vote to require Mr. Gingrich to pay the penalty, which is all I say in the story.