A Second Act for Newt Gingrich Should Require an Explanation and Apology for His 1990s Nonprofit/Foundation Ethics Mess

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December 8, 2011; Source: BusinessWeekAs nonprofit leaders bird-dog presidential candidates to see which ones can mouth the nonprofit-friendliest platitudes, they might want to remember to look at the candidates’ own nonprofit track records, particularly when it comes to questions of ethics and accountability. Perhaps there is reticence on the part of some about taking to task today someone who might end up as the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January of 2013.

No one should mistake this as harping on Newt Gingrich, whose articulate and sometimes erudite performances in the debates have vaulted him to the top of the Republican presidential scrum as other putative poll leaders such as Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Herman Cain have fallen. Whatever his good or bad qualities might be in other spheres of his potential presidential performance, his track record while Speaker of the House regarding nonprofits was atrocious, and he has never, to our knowledge, volunteered a statement of contrition regarding his abuse of nonprofit and philanthropic ethics and accountability.

Hardly a left-wing critic of Gingrich, BusinessWeek reminds its readers that in the 1990s, Gingrich faced charges that he “improperly used tax-exempt charitable and education organizations to advance partisan political purposes.” The subsequent ethics probe earned Gingrich “the biggest monetary penalty [ever] imposed on a U.S. House speaker.” The bipartisan ethics subcommittee wrote in its report on the investigation that “Gingrich’s use of the tax-exempt groups . . . was either ‘intentional or it was reckless.’” In 1997, the House voted in 395 to 28 to approve a settlement that charged Gingrich with having “twice misled the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s investigation,” and demanded a “$300,000 payment to recover some of the probe’s costs.”

Since he now faces ethics and accountability allegations regarding his use of a group called American Solutions as well as his relations with other organizations, one would think that presidential candidate Gingrich would take some time to explain his theory of nonprofit accountability and, if he sees that he was wrong in the past, to acknowledge that. Plenty of candidates in this electoral cycle have had to walk back their past positions on taxes, immigration, abortion rights, and health insurance. But not Gingrich on nonprofit and philanthropic ethics.

On the contrary. Republican strategist and former Speaker Dennis Hastert aide John Feehery thinks that Republicans might actually like Gingrich’s mix and match of public charity and partisan politics, describing it as a “kind of entrepreneurship and ideas.” Gingrich’s own spokesperson did not respond to BusinessWeek with a comment on the former Speaker’s problems with nonprofit ethics. The NPQ Newswire has briefly discussed the questions about Gingrich’s current nonprofit connections here and here and his problems with nonprofits and foundations in the 1990s, earning him an ethics slap and more scrutiny overall.

The BusinessWeek article is a decent review of Gingrich’s past and current issues with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. As a site that keeps a lookout for nonprofit-related issues, Newt Gingrich is the presidential candidate with nonprofit “issues.” As one pundit referenced today on cable television news, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives”—but Gingrich might be the one to break that rule.

And speaking of breaking rules—if Gingrich does have a second act, maybe he should own up to his nonprofit and philanthropic rule-breaking, explain what was behind his choices at the time, and tell us what he has learned about nonprofit accountability that he would apply to his oversight of the Internal Revenue Service, were he to be elected President of the United States.—Rick Cohen