November 17, 2011; Source: Palm Beach PostNow that the Republican presidential crowd appears to be thinning, it is easier to begin asking questions about where the Republicans stand vis-à-vis the nonprofit sector. That doesn’t mean “bird-dogging” candidates to see what kind of platitudes they might offer in response to questions about nonprofits and charities—because on the stump, candidates will say almost anything to anyone. It means looking into their histories in the public sector, in business, and in the nonprofit sector to see what they have done and what that means for what they might do if one of them became our nation’s president.

A few months ago, when Newt Gingrich’s campaign staff walked out en masse, we thought his campaign had hit the skids, but Gingrich is rising in the polls as other very conservative candidates flame out for one reason or another. As the National Journal notes, the vetting of Gingrich as a serious candidate has begun. Our interest is his nonprofit and philanthropic track record. The most thorough review of Gingrich’s dubious engagement with philanthropy in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s can be found in this piece from 2006, which details his interlocking misuse of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, and his political action committee (GOPAC)—a tangle that earned him a House Ethics Committee critique, some slaps on the wrist, and an IRS investigation (the latter terminated under President Bush).

Since the PPF/ALOF/GOPAC issues, has Gingrich had anything more to do with nonprofits and foundations that raises concerns? One source suggests that Gingrich uses a 501(c)(3) he founded called Renewing American Leadership and its political arm, ReAL Action, to funnel money to such evangelical groups in Iowa as the American Family Association Action and the Iowa Christian Alliance, in support of their campaign to remove Iowa Supreme Court justices who favor same-sex marriage.

ABC News said that Gingrich’s use of ReAL last summer “came dangerously close to breaking a law that is supposed to separate tax exempt charitable work from the political process and profit-making enterprises like books and DVDs.” According to ABC, ReAL “paid $220,000 over two years to one of Gingrich’s for-profit companies, Gingrich Communications, and bought cases of his books and DVDs made by another Gingrich-run company.” NPQ had noted this as well, and we wondered if Gingrich was perhaps more interested in promoting his books and DVDs than in being a serious presidential candidate—which might have explained his cavalier willingness to flout nonprofit standards. But it seems Newt is truly serious about facing off against President Obama.

Gingrich is one smart, articulate man, but his history with nonprofits and foundations—from the interactions of ALOF and PPF with GOPAC to ReAL’s relationship with Gingrich Communications—suggests that he needs a little help in the realm of nonprofit and philanthropic accountability.—Rick Cohen