The Romney campaign has been hitting Newt Gingrich hard over the 1990s ethics case that resulted in the former speaker being reprimanded and paying a $300,000 penalty. Romney mentions it often, and his campaign made the ethics case the focus of the most widely viewed attack ad of the Florida primary.
Given all that attention, it's worth asking what actually happened back in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
The Gingrich case was extraordinarily complex, intensely partisan, and driven in no small way by a personal vendetta on the part of one of Gingrich's former political opponents. It received saturation coverage in the press; a database search of major media outlets revealed more than 10,000 references to Gingrich's ethics problems during the six months leading to his reprimand. It ended with a special counsel hired by the House Ethics Committee holding Gingrich to an astonishingly strict standard of behavior, after which Gingrich in essence plead guilty to two minor offenses. Afterward, the case was referred to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter -- and then, three years later, completely exonerated Gingrich.
It's that last part of the story you don't hear about much.
At the center of the controversy was a course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 at two small Georgia colleges. The class, called "Renewing American Civilization," was conceived by Gingrich and financed by a tax-exempt organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation. G ingrich maintained that the course was a legitimate educational enterprise; his critics said it had little to do with learning and was, in fact, a political exercise in which Gingrich abused a tax-exempt foundation to spread his own partisan message.
The Gingrich case was driven in significant part by a man named Ben Jones. An actor and recovered alcoholic who became famous for playing the dim-witted Cooter in the popular 1980s TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard," Jones ran for Congress as a Democrat from Georgia in 1988. He served two terms, but lost his seat due to redistricting. Attempting a comeback, he ran against Gingrich in 1994 and lost decisively. After that, it's fair to say Jones became obsessed with bringing Gingrich down.
Two days before Election Day 1994, with defeat in sight, Jones hand-delivered a complaint to the House Ethics Committee. (The complaint was printed on "Ben Jones for Congress" stationery. ) Jones charged that Gingrich "fabricated a 'college course' intended, in fact, to meet certain political, not educational, objectives."
Jones teamed up with his friend, Democratic Rep. David Bonior, to push the case relentlessly. Under public pressure, the Ethics Committee -- made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats -- took up the case and hired an outside counsel, Washington lawyer James Cole, to conduct the investigation.
Cole developed a theory in which Gingrich, looking for a way to spread his political views, came up with the idea of creating a college course and then devised a way to use a tax-exempt foundation to pay the bills. Cole didn't argue that the course was not educational; it plainly was. But Cole suggested that the standard for determining wrongdoing was whether any ill intent lurked in Gingrich's heart, even if the course was unquestionably educational.
It is hard to convey today how much the media became preoccupied with the case, and how much pressure fell on Gingrich and Republicans to end the ordeal. In January 1997, Gingrich agreed to plead guilty to the previously unknown offense of failing to seek sufficiently detailed advice from a tax lawyer before proceeding with the course. (Gingrich had, in fact, sought advice from two such lawyers in relation to the course.) Gingrich also admitted that he had provided "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information to Ethics Committee investigators. That "inaccurate" information was largely Gingrich's contention that the course was not political -- a claim the IRS later would support.
Why did Gingrich admit wrongdoing? "The atmosphere at the time was so rancorous, partisan, and personal that everyone, including Newt, was desperately seeking a way to end the whole thing," Gingrich attorney Jan Baran said in 1999. "He was admitting to w hatever he could to get the case over with."
It was a huge victory for Democrats. They had deeply wounded the speaker. But they wanted more, and they pressed the IRS to investigate.
Experts examined every word Gingrich spoke in every class; they examined the financing and administration of the course; and they examined how the course might have fit into Gingrich's political network.
In the end, in 1999, the IRS released a highly detailed 74-page report that concluded the course was, in fact, a legitimate educational exercise. "The 'Renewing American Civilization' course was educational ... and not biased toward any of those who were supposed to be benefited," the IRS concluded.
Bottom line: Gingrich acted properly and violated no laws. Of course, by that time, Gingrich was out of office, widely presumed to be guilty of something, and his career in politics was (seemingly) o ver. Now he's having to fight the fight all over again.