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By Willoughby Mariano February 20, 2012

Gingrich says he was "exonerated" in ethics probe

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced some of his harshest attacks on ethics violations during the Florida GOP primary last month.

On Feb. 10, Gingrich appeared on Neal Boortz’s radio talk show on AM 750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB to make his case.

With the Georgia primary just weeks away, Boortz told Gingrich that he should have fought harder in Florida against the attacks.

"Well, look," Gingrich replied. "The Wall Street Journal said the ads were false and that in fact I was exonerated in every single case. National Review said the ads were false, I was exonerated in every single case."

"Exonerated in every single case?" This was a surprise to us.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee looked into whether Gingrich broke ethics rules in the 1990s. All but one of the charges were dropped, and he was reprimanded by the House in 1997.

In what amounted to a plea deal, Gingrich agreed to pay $300,000 and admit he had "engaged in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."  

So how could Gingrich have been exonerated? He even admitted to poor conduct.

We contacted the Gingrich campaign but received no response. We therefore switched gears and took a closer look at the National Review and The Wall Street Journal, the two publications he cited.

But first, here’s a review of the ethics controversy, as provided by PolitiFact National:

The case primarily involved a course at Kennesaw State College (now Kennesaw State University) that Gingrich taught while in Congress. Its organizers solicited financial support from "individuals, corporations and foundations," promising that the project qualified for tax-exempt status.

But the ethics committee concluded that the course aimed to "help in achieving a partisan, political goal" -- something that would run afoul of its tax-exempt status.

A further problem for Gingrich was that during the investigation, he submitted letters from his lawyers for which "the subcommittee was unable to find any factual basis." Gingrich "should have known" that the information in the letters "was inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable."

The Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation and the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Gingrich-related groups backed with tax-deductible donations, helped fund the course.

Obviously, Gingrich wasn’t exonerated by the House of Representatives. The ethics committee, which has an even number of Republicans and Democrats, voted 7 to 1 to pass a report that recommended a reprimand and $300,000 penalty.

The full House passed the ethics report 395 to 28, with 196 Republicans supporting it.

Now on to the articles Gingrich cited. Neither publication said he was cleared on all ethics counts. However, an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal said that a formal IRS investigation in 1999 "exonerated Mr. Gingrich." We found a similar claim in the National Review.

News accounts tell a different story.

The House ethics committee left it to the IRS to determine whether there were violations of tax laws. It cleared the Progress and Freedom Foundation of accusations that it violated its tax-exempt status in 1999.

The IRS described its decision as a "close case," according to news accounts. It accused the ethics committee of failing to turn over crucial transcripts.

"It is possible that if the ethics committee had rendered full cooperation with our examination, the transcripts might have affected our conclusion," the decision said.  

News accounts from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times said that the IRS did not directly exonerate Gingrich.

The IRS did find the Lincoln foundation was involved in partisan efforts to train Republican political activists. It lost its tax-exempt status in December 1998, and the decision was upheld in federal court, according to an article in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

But the IRS restored its tax-exempt status in 2003 through a little-known review process, according to Roll Call.

Critics said the move opened the IRS to accusations that it was swayed by political influence, and the process was soon abolished, according to Roll Call. The IRS did not say at the time whether the Lincoln foundation controversy was a factor.

An IRS letter restoring the Lincoln foundation’s tax-exempt status does not say whether the group was cleared of engaging in partisan activity.

No, Gingrich was not "exonerated in every single case," as he said during the Boortz show. There is no doubt that the full House of Representatives voted to formally reprimand him for his conduct, and he was required to pay a $300,000 penalty.  

Furthermore, the IRS’ treatment of the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation don’t clear him, either. One was cleared -- with a caveat the IRS was unable to obtain important evidence.

Even if both groups were cleared, that would not blot out or negate the House of Representatives’ historic decision to reprimand him. Trying to claim that it does is ridiculous.

Gingrich earns our lowest rating: Pants on Fire.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

"The Neal Boortz Show," Newt Gingrich interview, Feb. 10, 2012

National Review Online, Why Newt Left the House, Jan. 30, 2012

The Wall Street Journal, "Professor Gingrich’s Ethics," Jan. 28, 2012

Newt 2012 website, "Neal Boortz Sets the Record Straight on Newt Gingrich's Past ‘Ethics Violations’," posted Jan. 24, 2012

PolitiFact, "Did Newt Gingrich pay a $300,000 ethics fine back in the 1990s?," Feb. 7, 2012

PolitiFact, "Newt Gingrich blasts 1990s ethics investigation of him, calling it partisan," Dec. 7, 2011

The Washington Post, "Use of Tax-Exempt Groups Integral to Political Strategy," Jan. 7, 1997

The Washington Post, "Ethics Committee Drops Last of 84 Charges Against Gingrich," Oct. 11, 1997

The Washington Post, "Ethics Panel Supports Reprimand of Gingrich," Jan. 18, 1997

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Rulings cloud charities’ rights," March 13, 1999

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Report shows subcommittee came close to backing out of deal they agreed upon," Jan. 18, 1997

The Washington Post, "IRS Clears Foundation That Aided Gingrich Course," Feb. 4, 1999

The New York Times, "IRS Clears Foundation Linked to Gingrich’s Ethics Dispute," Feb. 4, 1999

Los Angeles Times, "IRS Clears Gingrich but Blurs Fund-Raising Line," Feb. 27, 1999

The Campaign Legal Center, "IRS Reversal on Groups' Tax-Exempt Status," June 15, 2010

Roll Call, "IRS Reversal Could Spark ‘Notorious Abuse,’" April 28, 2003

Roll Call, "IRS Abolishes Review Used in Gingrich Cases," Nov. 4, 2003

Roll Call, "IRS: No Documents on Gingrich Review," Nov. 10, 2003

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