- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2011

On Jan. 21, 1997, one of the most memorable days in congressional history, Newt Gingrich became the first U.S. House speaker to be reprimanded by his colleagues for ethical misconduct.

The 395-28 vote to reprimand him for bringing discredit on the House for failing to ensure his use of tax-exempt groups was legal was historic by itself. But Mr. Gingrich’s peers didn’t stop there. They fined him $300,000 for misleading the House ethics committee and causing it to extend a costly investigation.

Fifteen years later, the case has come back into focus as the fight for next year’s Republican presidential nomination has resuscitated a political career once thought to be all but over.

The ethics committee back then made no finding on whether Mr. Gingrich’s use of tax-exempt groups to raise money was illegal. It said it would let the Internal Revenue Service determine if any tax laws were broken. In 1999, the IRS said they were not.

In settling the case, the Georgia Republican acknowledged he gave false information to the ethics committee in denying that a political action committee he led — GOPAC — was connected to a college course he taught that was funded by tax-exempt organizations.

GOPAC, in fact, was involved in developing what was supposed to be a nonpartisan college course, the committee said, and Mr. Gingrich’s denial was “inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable.”

Mr. Gingrich said in recent comments on the campaign trail that more than 1 million pages of documents were turned over to the ethics committee that investigated him, and that 83 charges were repudiated as false. “The one mistake we made was a letter written by a lawyer that I didn’t read carefully,” he said.

But he also accused the ethics committee of being partisan. “The way I was dealt with related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than the ethics,” he said. The committee, then and now, has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

The ethics findings, unhappiness of many Republicans with his leadership and his resignation as speaker after 1998 GOP election losses left Mr. Gingrich with scars that seemed to doom his political career. It didn’t revive until last month, when he surged to the top among Republican presidential hopefuls.

Mr. Gingrich’s ethics investigation consumed more than two years. Democrats were rabid in their insistence that the speaker broke House rules. And they wanted revenge. Years earlier, Mr. Gingrich and others had filed an ethics complaint against Democratic Speaker Jim Wright — a case that led to Mr. Wright’s resignation in 1989.

If Mr. Gingrich wins the GOP nomination, Democrats are certain to remind voters of this piece of baggage. The ethics report in 1997 portrayed him as unethical beyond the case at hand. Without details, it said that “over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities.”

The genesis of Mr. Gingrich’s ethics case goes back to 1990, when he was No. 2 in the House GOP hierarchy. Democrats had a stranglehold on the majority dating back to 1955, and Mr. Gingrich knew that If Republicans were ever to take back the House, they had to recruit hundreds of thousands of new voters.

He developed a television show in 1990 and a college course in 1993, using tax-exempt organizations to help finance them and spread his message: Replace the “welfare state” with an “opportunity society” centered in part on free-enterprise economic principles.

“Based on the evidence, it was clear that Mr. Gingrich intended that the (television show and college course) have substantial partisan, political purposes,” the ethics committee found.

That was a problem. U.S. tax law provides a way for people to make tax-deductible donations to certain groups as long as those groups stay away from partisan politics. The groups are often called 501(c)(3)s because that’s the section of the IRS code that gives them tax-exempt status.

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