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Gingrich foes fight to remind GOP of ex-speaker's ethics woes

Comments from Newt Gingrich's ex-wife haven't slowed the former House Speaker's momentum. NBC's Ron Mott reports.


Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have fought in the closing days of the South Carolina primary to remind voters of the headaches Republicans faced during the speakership of Newt Gingrich, highlighting in particular the ethics investigation that led to his official reprimand.

For his part, Gingrich has dismissed the investigation as an essentially partisan exercise; a spokesman for the former speaker called it "Nancy Pelosi's ethics witch-hunt" on Friday afternoon.

But that hasn't satisfied Gingrich's GOP foes. On Friday, Romney called on Gingrich to release any records relating to the ethics investigation -- a response, in part, to Gingrich's demand that the former Massachusetts governor release his tax records.

"One of the issues that was raised last night by Rick Santorum was the fact that he was pushed out of the House by his fellow members. I think over 80 percent of Republican congressmen voted to reprimand the speaker of the House -- first time in history," Romney said in Gilbert, S.C. "Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation. You know it’s going to get out before the general election."

SLIDESHOW: Newt Gingrich

It cuts to the core of a concern about Gingrich on the lips of many Republicans: While he is credited as a visionary, his speakership was marked by internal Republican discord and personal missteps that made it difficult for the Republicans whom Gingrich had led to Congress to govern. (It's that context which helped give legs to the allegations made Thursday by Gingrich's ex-wife that he had asked for an "open" marriage, or had otherwise asked for a divorce.)

"I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out  … worrying about what he's going to say next," Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said at Thursday night's debate.

But just as Romney's campaign has been reluctant to make public the candidate's tax records, so, too, the Gingrich campaign seems unlikely to release any new documents about the investigation into his actions, which concluded in 1997.

"Unlike Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, the documents and reports from Nancy Pelosi's ethics witch-hunt vs. Newt have been [for] over a decade," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, the House Select Committee on Ethics has long-posted on its website the entirety of its findings against Gingrich. The Romney campaign is asking for the release of additional documents and details used by the committee as part of its deliberations, a request that goes well beyond what's required of the former speaker. Gingrich has estimated that his office had turned over "1 million pages of material" to the ethics office, much of which may be protected under the private deliberations of the committee.

But a number of other details about the investigation, which culminated in an official House vote to reprimand Gingrich and a $300,000 bill to reimburse the committee's investigation, are a matter of public record.

The investigation was initiated by a complaint filed in September of 1994 by Gingrich's opponent for re-election that alleged a course Gingrich had tought at Kennesaw State College essentially served political purposes despite the class having been advertised as a not-for-profit activity; one that served a primarily educational function.

The investigation was eventually expanded to probe what role GOPAC, the political action committee founded to help train GOP candidates for office, played in support of that college course.

The ethics committee concluded its work in 1997, saying in its findings that Gingrich had misled the committee in its investigations. The eight-member panel stopped short of saying Gingrich had lied, but said the then-speaker had been either "intentional" or "reckless" in his representations of his activities during the investigation. The ethics committee, which is divided evenly on party lines, voted 7-1 in favor of its judgment, and recommendation that the full House vote to reprimand Gingrich and require the reimbursement of $300,000 for extra time spent on the investigation as a result of Gingrich's misstatements.

The House did overwhelmingly approve the reprimand, voting 395-28 to approve the punishment. Twenty-six Republicans broke ranks to oppose the punishment. An official reprimand is a step below censure in severity of congressional discipline.

At the time, as recounted in a Jan. 19, 1997 story in The Washington Post, Gingrich had accepted the penalty and reprimand. But Gingrich ultimately blamed his attorneys for making mistakes that led to the misleading information. "I trusted the law firm to have done the job right. They didn't do the job right and I didn't catch them," he said on Jan. 25, according to a CNN report at the time.

But while the investigation was conducted in a nonpartisan fashion, it's also true that the investigation and reprimand of Gingrich -- the first for a sitting speaker -- was a potent political issue.

According to accounts during the controversy, Republicans were particularly incensed by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a member of the ethics committee who leaked audio of Gingrich plotting with aides to combat the charges. The leak fueled partisan rancor over whether Gingrich was being targeted unfairly because of his political stature.

(It's also true that the investigation drove some internal Republican dissent. Throughout the course of the investigation, some Republican members called on Gingrich to step aside temporarily, while others suggested they would not support Gingrich for a second term as speaker. He won a second term with 216 votes, despite some GOP defections.)

The sense, though, that the investigation had been a partisan exercise was rekindled by comments made by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in December. Pelosi was a member of the eight-member ethics panel to conduct the Gingrich investigation.

“I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff," she told the left-leaning news website TalkingPointsMemo.

Pelosi would be barred by releasing that information, since the ethics committee is charged with conducting its inquiries in private. 

That prompted Gingrich to call Pelosi's words in December an early "Christmas gift."

"Just a reminder, that committee was extraordinarily partisan. The job of the Democrats was to get Newt Gingrich," he said on Dec. 6 on CNBC. "They couldn't beat any of our ideas, so they decided to try to beat the messenger. And I think it actually will help people understand what happened in that period and how much of it was partisan."

But it's Pelosi's veiled threat on which Romney's campaign is leaning Friday. "If Nancy Pelosi has this information, Barack Obama has this information," Romney communications director Gail Gitcho said in an email to reporters.

Additional resources on Gingrich's ethics investigation:

NBC's Garrett Haake contributed reporting.