A non-profit charity founded by Newt Gingrich to promote freedom, faith and free enterprise also served as another avenue to promote Gingrich's political views, and came dangerously close, some experts say, to crossing a bright line that is supposed to separate tax-exempt charitable work from both the political process and such profit-making enterprises as books and DVDs.
The charity, Renewing American Leadership, not only featured Gingrich on its website and in fundraising letters, it also paid $220,000 over two years to one of Gingrich's for-profit companies, Gingrich Communications. It purchased cases of Gingrich's books and bought up copies of DVDs produced by another of the former House speaker's entities, Gingrich Productions.
"The spirit of operating a non-profit organization is to work for the public good regardless of the politics that are involved," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, in an interview with ABC News. "I believe it violates that spirit."
Asked about the allegations this morning prior to a speech in New Hampshire, Gingrich urged an ABC News reporter to focus on his speech.
"I'm not concerned about that. The American people aren't concerned about that. Try covering the speech," Gingrich said as he left a campaign event. When the reporter tried to follow up, Gingrich got in his waiting car and slammed the door.
ABC News was engaged for weeks in discussions with top Gingrich advisors about money from Gingrich's tax-exempt charity that went to his for-profit businesses -- known as related-party transactions -- which were never disclosed on the charity's tax forms. ABC News found evidence of the payments in a May 2011 audit commissioned by the West Virginia secretary of state's office. Many of ABC News's questions remained unanswered last week when Gingrich's presidential campaign team resigned en masse, citing dismay with the candidate's lackluster approach to his bid. Questions were resent to Gingrich's new team, but they did not generate a reply by the time of publication.
Tuesday afternoon, the Gingrich campaign released a statement saying the ABC News report "did not find any activity that was not fully supported by the law."
"That's because both [Renewing American Leadership] and Gingrich Communications took great care to make sure all resources were being used legally and ethically," the statement says.
One of those who quit the campaign, longtime Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler, told ABC News in a series of email exchanges prior to his resignation that the charity spent no money on political activity and "did nothing to promote anyone's political career." Tyler also revealed that he personally was the beneficiary of the six-figure payments the charity made to Gingrich Communications – money he was paid to run the charity until he began helping prepare Gingrich for a presidential bid.
The blending of charitable and political activity has been a touchy area for Gingrich. In the late 1990s Gingrich became the first sitting House Speaker to be censured and fined by the House Ethics Committee after being accused of drawing money from a tax-exempt organization to help finance his political activities. The IRS later cleared him on the charges, but not before the House ordered him to pay a $300,000 fine.
Since leaving the speakership, Gingrich has built an elaborate conglomerate of businesses and political organizations that have all worked in concert to promote his ideas, sell his books, and keep him in the mix of political figures who shape conservative ideology and messaging. The profit-making portion of the Gingrich empire has helped him amass enough wealth to buy a $1 million home in suburban Washington, D.C., and have a now-infamous $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany's.
It is often difficult to tell where the work of one Gingrich entity ends and where the work of another begins. For instance, money raised by a political group he founded, American Solutions, paid for millions of dollars worth of charter jet flights Gingrich took to crisscross the country promoting the movies of his production company. He made paid public speeches that helped fill the accounts of his communications firm and promote the ideas developed by yet another business, a for-profit think tank called the Center for Health Transformation.