Over the past three years, ReAL raised millions of dollars through direct mail solicitations -- several of which came in letters typed on Gingrich stationery, and signed by the former House Speaker. The letters included pointed critiques of President Obama, touted Gingrich's views on national policy issues, and offered to send copies of Gingrich's books and DVDs in exchange for contributions.
Charities are not supposed to engage in political activity or support the work of profit-making enterprises. Owens said the activities described in the ABC News report are likely to provoke questions from IRS agents. Owens said the IRS has been "more aggressive than it's ever been" in policing the way charities fill in their tax forms, known as 990s.
In 2009, ReAL wrote on its 990 form that its director and president was Rick Tyler, who was also working as Gingrich's spokesman. The form reported that Tyler was unpaid. Where the form asks, "Did any [officer] receive or accrue compensation from any unrelated organization for services," the charity responded, "No."
But when ABC News asked charity officials to explain why ReAL had paid more than $220,000 to Gingrich Communications, Tyler said it was to cover his salary and health insurance costs. Gingrich's charity should have disclosed on the 990 that it was making payments to a for-profit business that had such close ties to Gingrich, Owens said.
"I think there are a lot of issues there," Owens said. "And those are just the ones uncovered by looking at public documents. I mean, who knows what's really going on. [Gingrich] likes to live a very fancy lifestyle. When you see an individual with a very expensive lifestyle affiliated with an organization like that, you start to wonder if there are internal controls to see if that money isn't leaking over. The IRS will be looking at that."
Owens said 990s are filed under penalty of perjury, and making false statements can bring civil or criminal charges.
Gingrich campaign spokesman Joe DeSantis disputed the suggestion that the charity's funds were used for anything other than the tax-exempt group's stated goals. He said ReAL's payments to Gingrich Communications to cover Tyler's salary were "perfectly normal."
"It is perfectly normal for a 501c3 to pay a management fee to compensate another organization for the part-time services of its Executive Director," DeSantis said. "Both ReAL and Gingrich Communications were scrupulous about ensuring that each entity entirely paid for any resources it used. Great care was taken to ensure against any commingling of funds or misappropriation of resources."
DeSantis confirmed that the candidate received names from the charity's fundraising list, but said they were "only the names that responded posivitely to fundraising letters signed by Gingrich." He said this is a standard practice in fundraising.
Sloan, of the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she wants to see authorities take a closer look at the charity's activities. She noted that in 1997, Gingrich was censured by Congress for improperly using charitable donations for political purposes and was fined $300,000. The fine stood even though the IRS eventually cleared Gingrich, determining he had not violated the law.
"Charities and politics don't mix," she said. Gingrich "should know this better than anyone."
Editor's note: The action she refers to was an official Congressional reprimand, not a formal censure, which is more serious.