- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2012

In a debate in which former Speaker Newt Gingrich angrily batted back a fusillade of attacks, he didn’t anticipate one from rival Rick Santorum that wound up hitting him square between the eyes.

The former Pennsylvania senator, already steaming about Mr. Gingrich’s comments that he lacked the knowledge it takes to do “something on this scale” — i.e. run the country — unloaded with a very personal account of Mr. Gingrich’s unwillingness to expose the House bank scandal nearly 20 years ago in order to preserve his own leadership ambitions.

Mr. Santorum said he would give Mr. Gingrich “his due on grandiose ideas and grandiose projects” but would not stand behind his ability to execute those projects, “which is what a president of the United States is supposed to do.” Four years into Mr. Gingrich’s speakership, conservatives threw him out in a coup, Mr. Santorum recalled.

“I served with him. I was there. I knew what the problems were going on in the House of Representatives, and Newt Gingrich was leading this — leading there,” Mr. Santorum said. “It was an idea a minute — no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together. I understand you’re taking credit for the 1994 election, and you did have a lot plans. As you know, I worked with you on those, and we had meetings early in the morning on many — many a week. And so we worked together on that.”

Then Mr. Santorum unleashed a bomb he seemed to have kept hidden throughout the entire primary campaign.

When both were serving in the House in the early 1990s, Mr. Santorum said Mr. Gingrich resisted helping him expose abuses at the House-run bank. The extensive practice of members writing bad checks became a major scandal that rocked Washington and eventually led to ethical reprimands for 22 members of Congress, as well as convictions of four former members, a delegate and the House sergeant-at-arms.

The public was outraged over the check-kiting scandal, which Mr. Santorum and six fellow up-and-coming House Republicans helped expose in 1992, creating a throw-the-bums-out atmosphere that contributed to the resignations or defeat of 77 members, mostly Democrats, by 2004.

“You also have to admit that this freshman congressman who wasn’t supposed to win a race, came and did something you never did, which is blew the lid off the biggest scandal to hit the Congress in 50 years,” Mr. Santorum said in an intense moment during the Thursday night CNN debate. “You knew about it for 10 or 15 years because you told me you knew about it. And you did nothing, because you didn’t have the courage to stand up to your own leadership, the Democratic speaker of the House, take to the floor of the Senate, demand the releasing of the checks that were being kited by members of Congress, risk your political career, risk your promotion within the ranks and do what was right for America.”

The accusation, not previously raised in the GOP primary battle this year, electrified the audience, who cheered and applauded wildly.

Mr. Gingrich responded with a line that “each of us writes a selective history that fits our interests,” citing his own battles to promote ethics on Capitol Hill, including moving against members caught up in the sex scandal involving pages in 1983 and his later campaign that helped lead to the ouster of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright — “at rather considerable risk for a backbench member.”

Neither Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich mentioned that Mr. Gingrich’s own vulnerability in the banking scandal — that he had 22 kited checks, including a $9,463 check to the Internal Revenue Service. Realizing that far more Democrats were involved and had more to lose, Mr. Gingrich and the seven freshmen Republicans made a strategic decision to expose the scandal.

Asked Friday about Mr. Santorum’s charges and about his own overdrafts, Mr. Gingrich said only that Mr. Santorum was stretching to find a storyline. He said the Republican Party leadership in the House actually backed the effort by Mr. Santorum and six other members of the GOP to push the matter.

“It was just factually inaccurate,” he said of Mr. Santorum’s accusation. “We were constantly supportive of what they were doing, and I was the whip and they were supported out of my office.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.