April 28, 2015; NPQ Original Reporting

Notwithstanding his past problems of treating 501(c)(3) foundations and political action committees sort of interchangeably (read all about it in our other newswire here), former House speaker Newt Gingrich nonetheless went ahead with his closing plenary session at the 2015 Council on Foundations annual meeting, accompanied by his CNN Crossfire partner Van Jones.

Philanthropic accountability wasn’t on the menu. Like much of the Council’s conference agenda, the focus was on collaboration across political or ideological differences to find common ground on major issues. For Gingrich and Jones, their issue of left/right convergence is criminal justice reform, and on that topic, they and their staffs are collaborators.

Jones noted that Gingrich is “as passionate about seeing real reform as I,” though they came to the issue from different starting points and perspectives. Jones was able to relate the topic to the sad and horrific events going on in Baltimore, noting that Baltimore was one of the nation’s cities that is among the most overly policed and overly incarcerated—and that means a disproportion of poor people and people of color caught in a dysfunctional and harmful criminal justice system. Both political parties, Jones contended, were having their “principles violated” by a prison system that “gobbled” dollars and more.

For Gingrich, the route to a commitment to deal with the broken prison system might have begun with Charles Colson, the Nixon aide who went to jail for obstruction of justice and for trying to defame Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Colson came out of prison a changed man, Gingrich said, and created a faith-based program, the Prison Fellowship, which responded to Colson’s experience that the prison system brutalized its wards and left them incapable of functioning once outside of prison.

In contrast with the prison system that leaves released inmates worse off, the Prison Fellowship established as its mission the following:

We equip local churches and thousands of trained volunteers to spread the Gospel and nurture disciples behind prison walls, so that men and women become new creations in Christ—not repeat offenders. We prepare Christian inmates to become leaders of their families, communities, and churches once they are released back into the community. We support inmates’ families, helping them become reconciled to God and one another through transformative relationships with local churches.

Reborn as an evangelical, Colson was nonetheless the conservative Republican he had always been, but now devoted to prison reform. Gingrich also cited another effort called Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Right on Crime’s approach is summarized by the statement, “Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.” Among the signatories to Right on Crime’s seven principles (which include transparency, emphasizing personal responsibility, rehabilitating “amenable offenders” to return to society, and limiting the growth of government) are Colson (who died in 2012), former Texas governor Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform), Richard Viguerie, Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), Stephen Moore (the Heritage Foundation), Gary Bauer, Erick Erickson (publisher of RedState), and Ward Connerly (American Civil Rights Institute)—a who’s who of conservative political icons. The engagement of so many prominent conservatives around prison reform is meaningful to Gingrich as evidence rooting criminal justice and prison reform in a conservative political framework.

In Van Jones’s words, “Newt and I have different politics of the head, but the same politics of the heart.” There was a great deal of discussion of how much the two Crossfire hosts like each other, which enables the two to disagree about many things but to work together comfortably on the criminal justice/prison reform issue that the both agree about.

From the brief comments that they shared, it isn’t quite clear exactly where they agree and didn’t regarding criminal justice reform. For example, Gingrich said that 40 percent of prisoners have some form of mental illness and are being sustained by a “wholly inefficient and ineffective” prison system. He didn’t quite acknowledge that the massive budget cuts of Republican-led Congresses from his time of the “Contract with America” on to the present day have eviscerated much funding for mental illness programs. Although he and Jones both cited conservatives’ commitment to reducing government spending as a reason for supporting prison reform, Gingrich didn’t quite acknowledge a need to put those resources toward mental health services, social safety net programs, and other purposes that provide treatment venues much more effective than prisons. Nonetheless, both predicted that there would be some sort of comprehensive prison reform legislation presented to the president before January, though what that package might entail wasn’t described.

In the end, the Gingrich/Jones collaboration on reforming the criminal justice system seemed to be a model for the foundations gathered by the Council of getting different ideologies to come together in and through philanthropy. Toward that end, Gingrich recommended that foundations support projects in which people who don’t typically agree are engaged, that Democrats bring Republicans and Republicans bring Democrats. He advised that foundations avoid projects that come from a single ideological group. In fact, he called on foundations to look for grantees that are explicitly non-ideological or “pan-ideological.”

With a predilection for history, Gingrich described the “genius of the American system” as its civil society, in which foundations play a morally and historically important role. Suggesting that the U.S. is in the very early stages of an era of new opportunity, he called on foundations to set high visionary goals and to never grow comfortable with the kind of poverty and absence of hope that is palpable in Baltimore. He suggested that too many foundations have become like the federal government, with too much paperwork and too much bureaucracy, and need to go back to being entrepreneurial. He suggested that foundations not spend much time on too many long-term efforts, but figure out how to make lots of small, fast, and bold experiments to test new and different ideas. He added three more things to his recommendations that foundations might adopt: metrics for why foundations are giving away their funds, that there should be a “very rigorous after-action process” to figure out what is working and what isn’t, and to use the Internet to “literally create best practices in real time,” which sounds a bit like what the Council has already set up as the Philanthropy Exchange.

As he was a decade ago, Gingrich was exceptionally articulate and engaging for the COF foundation crowd, helped immensely by the warmth and generosity of Jones’s comments. However, those of us who remember the deep cuts that Republican-led Congresses have made in discretionary spending programs over that decade, wonder how much Gingrich (or Norquist, Perkins, Bauer, and a number of other conservative icons) would be willing to engage in the government spending that is needed to make much of what he suggested work—or acknowledge how much their retrenchment in social spending has led to the deepening societal inequities that are visible in the broken criminal justice system.

But it was Jones who made a comment suffused with irony. He referenced listening to and admiring Gingrich’s “renewing American civilization” audio tapes as helping him understand exactly what Gingrich believed were the threats to the United States. Gingrich’s “Renewing American Civilization” course of study was actually developed for Kennesaw State College, where Gingrich taught in 1993, and recorded on video- and audio-cassettes. To pay for the costs of the materials, Gingrich solicited tax-deductible donations to the college’s foundation arm including donations from GOPAC. Kennesaw professors perceived the connection of the course materials to GOPAC as essentially political and generated a petition raising questions about the program. In response, the Georgia state Board of Regents decided to prohibit elected officials from teaching at public universities due to the potential for partisanship.

Gingrich then took the “Renewing American Civilization” course to Reinhardt College, a private university in Wisconsin, where it was funded through the Progress and Freedom Foundation, one of the two foundations that lay at the heart of the Congressional ethics investigations of the former speaker. Although the foundation was a 501(c)(3), the materials for the course said “Renewing American Civilization” would lead to a grassroots civic uprising that would result in a Republican electoral victory. Even after the Ethics Committee dismissed other charges against Gingrich (though he paid a $300,000 fine), the committee contended that fundraising for the course constituted a violation of the law by using a tax-exempt entity to raise donations for a partisan political activity.

What Jones extolled as indicative of Gingrich’s perspectives on the challenges ahead for America was what had been seen by the Ethics Committee as the misuse of charitable funds for partisan political activities through the aegis of a 501(c)(3) foundation. It may be that foundation accountability is no longer a major concern of the sector. However, the arena for left and right to come together around specific issues should also be an arena in which the leaders of the left and right maintain standards of ethics and accountability. It is certainly admirable that Gingrich and Jones have been able to collaborate around criminal justice reform. It would be good for both to find another productive area for left/right collaboration—the strengthening of ethics and accountability in politicians’ use of and interactions with 501(c)(3) foundations.—Rick Cohen