Dec. 19, 2011 -- A Washington, D.C. watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission Monday accusing Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich of getting improper financial support from his movie production company.
The complaint, by the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), alleges that Gingrich Productions spent money on events -- billed as movie screenings -- that were in fact aimed at bolstering his campaign. And it claims the campaign paid Gingrich himself $42,000 for a mailing list that was actually supplied by the candidate's film company. Both allegations would, if proven, amount to improper corporate support for his political campaign.
"We based our complaint on ABC News and Washington Post stories about these joint events and they seem to be for a dual purpose, for promoting his candidacy and promoting books," said Melanie Sloan, who is CREW's executive director. Campaign finance laws say that campaigns can't get aid from corporations. "Gingrich Productions is a corporation and this would violate the rule of not receiving a corporation's aid," said Sloan. "In turn, the campaign was accepting an illegal contribution."
The campaign responded swiftly to the accusations, releasing a one-sentence statement from spokesman R.C. Hammond: "If the FEC considers the complaint, they will find that the rules are being followed and published regulations are being enforced."
The complaint is the latest allegation to surface about the blending of Gingrich's vast business and charity enterprise and his efforts to generate financial support for his White House bid. In June, ABC News first reported that Gingrich had taken possession of a mailing list developed by a charity he once oversaw called Renewing American Leadership. The non-profit charity once run by Gingrich's former spokesman, Rick Tyler, spent millions of dollars to send out letters signed by Gingrich seeking contributions. The charity then provided Gingrich with the list of names of people who responded with donations.
The Gingrich campaign released a statement saying the ABC News report "did not find any activity that was not fully supported by the law."
Developing a mailing list of supporters -- especially supporters willing to write a check for the politician -- is typically a costly part of campaigning, and to the extent those costs were defrayed by either Gingrich's business or his charity, that would be a problem, Sloan said.
"The FEC needs to investigate this," she said. "What they should do is investigate and get some answers from Gingrich and they should fine him if he's found to be in violation."
Gingrich Book Sales and Movie Screenings
Book sales and movie screenings have been a fixture of the Gingrich campaign. Gingrich is a prolific author, mostly of history books, and formed a production company with his wife Callista that makes documentaries with religious and political themes. In Naples, Florida last month, Gingrich held a book signing at Borders, and all 800 copies of his novel "Battle of the Crater" were completely sold out before he even arrived.
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.
ABC News sought to talk with Gingrich about the overlap during a campaign stop in New Hampshire back in June. "I'm not concerned about that. The American people aren't concerned about that. Try covering the speech," Gingrich said as he left the campaign event. When the reporter tried to follow up, Gingrich got in his waiting car and slammed the door.
Gingrich distanced himself from the charity in the weeks prior to announcing he would run for president. The charity's tax forms indicate it has raised more than $2 million, mostly from small checks sent in response to mail solicitations. ABC News obtained samples of two different mass mailings -- requests for contributions written on Newt Gingrich letterhead and signed by the former speaker. Both letters quoted President Obama saying that America is "no longer a Christian nation" and called on donors to help Gingrich restore Christian principles in Washington. (The quote, from a 2006 Obama speech, is accurate, though the web site Factcheck.org called it misleading for Obama's critics to use the partial quote. What Obama said was, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation -- at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.")
The mixing 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 reprimanded and fined by the House Ethics Committee after being accused of using 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.