Remember Newt Gingrich’s college course? The one his enemies called a tax scam? Now that the IRS has cleared him, will those enemies admit they were wrong? No way. But Gingrich could still have the last laugh.
(Page 2 of 5)
The course reading list was classic Gingrich eclecticism. It included the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, speeches on welfare by former New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World by Martin Luther King, Jr., The Third Wave, and The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In the dry assessment of the IRS, the syllabus contained “several works by persons associated with the Democratic Party and fewer works identified with Republicans.”
After examining each lecture and the course reading list, IRS investigators concluded the course was not political. “The overwhelming number of positions advocated in the course were very broad in nature and often more applicable to individual behavior or behavioral changes in society as a whole than to any `political’ action,” investigators wrote.
For example, the lecture on quality was much more directly applicable to individual behavior than political action and would be difficult to attempt to categorize in political terms. Another example is the lecture on personal strength where again the focus was on individual behavior. In fact, this lecture placed some focus on the personal strength of individual Democrats who likely would not agree with Mr. Gingrich on his political views expressed in forums outside his Renewing American Civilization course teaching. Even in the lectures that had a partial focus on broadly defined changes in political activity, such as less government and government regulation, there was also a strong emphasis on changes in personal behavior and non-political changes in society as a whole.
The IRS also checked out the evaluations written by students who completed the course. The overwhelming majority of students, according to the report, believed that Gingrich knew his material, was an interesting speaker, and was open to alternate points of view. None seemed to perceive a particular political message.
“Most students,” the IRS noted, “said that they would apply the course material to improve their own lives in such areas as family, friendships, career, and citizenship.”
It should be said that James Cole, the outside counsel hired by the Ethics Committee to investigate Gingrich, reached a similar conclusion; after much study, he conceded that the course was educational. But Cole warned the committee not to be fooled by the actual content of the classes; Gingrich, he said, had given the lectures a patina of academic respectability even as he pursued a partisan goal. “There was an effort to have the material appear to be nonpartisan on its face,” Cole told the committee in January 1997, “yet serve as a partisan political message for the purpose of building the Republican Party.” Gingrich, Cole said, repeatedly worked code words into his lectures. The phrase “welfare state” was a coded negative label for the Democratic Party; the term “opportunity society” was positive code for Republicans.
But the real clincher was Gingrich’s original motive in designing the course. The speaker, according to Cole’s theory of the case, was looking for a way to spread his political views. He came up with the idea of creating a college course and then devised a way to use a tax-exempt foundation to pay the bills. “The idea to develop the message and disseminate it for partisan political use came first,” Cole told the committee. “The use of the 5o1(c)(3) [the Progress and Freedom Foundation] came second as a source of funding.” Thus, Cole concluded, the course was “motivated, at least in part, by political goals.” Cole further explained to the committee that any political motive, even a hint of a political motive, was enough to taint a tax-exempt foundation. “The presence of a single non-exempt purpose…will destroy the exemption of the organization,” he said, “regardless of the number or importance of truly exempt purposes that are present.”
It was, to Gingrich’s supporters and many disinterested observers, a frightening standard. Cole seemed to be saying that the standard for determining whether any laws were broken was not whether laws were in fact broken but whether any unclean intent lurked in the heart of the suspect under investigation. Fortunately for Gingrich, the IRS applied a different standard. Rather than focus narrowly on motive, the IRS asked four questions as it tried to determine whether the course and its funding were legal. One, was the Progress and Freedom Foundation operated for educational purposes? Two, did the foundation benefit private interests? Three, did the foundation play a role in political campaigns? And four, did the foundation’s money go to the private benefit of any person?
And the answers were: no, no, no, and no. “The central problem in arguing that the Progress and Freedom Foundation provided more than incidental private benefit to Mr. Gingrich, GOPAC, and other Republican entities,” the IRS wrote, “was that the content of the Renewing American Civilization course was educational…and not biased toward any of those who were supposed to be benefited.” The IRS went on to note that “the Renewing American Civilization course taught principles from American civilization that could be used by each American in everyday life whether the person is a welfare recipient, the head of a large corporation, or a politician. The class evaluations and letters indicated that people taking or viewing the class used the class principles for personal improvement.”
The decision was a resounding victory for Gingrich —and, for his supporters, a reaffirmation of common sense. “It’s a very slippery slope to make the validity of the 501(c)( 3 ) turn on motive,” says James Holden, a Washington tax expert who served as Gingrich’s attorney during the committee investigation. “People create 5o1(c)(3)’s for all sorts of motives—sometimes to advance one’s image in the community, sometimes for business motivations. If you meet your 5o1(c)(3) obligations, the purpose for which you formed it should be immaterial.”
Still, James Cole remains unconvinced. “I have heard from tax lawyers who say the IRS is wrong,” he said in an interview with TAS. “Gingrich had a stated purpose of using the course to build the Republican Party. The issue comes down to motive.”
Cole’s conclusions on motive and the true nature of the course were just preliminiaries to the Ethics Committee’s final decision. At the end of the investigation, Cole and the committee decided that regardless of whether or not the course was within the law, Gingrich should have known better than to undertake such a project. “Taking into account Mr. Gingrich’s experience, his background, his sophistication with tax-exempt organizations, and his status as a member of Congress required to maintain high ethical standards,” Cole reported, an investigating subcommittee “concluded that Mr. Gingrich should have known to seek appropriate legal advice to ensure that his conduct in regard to these projects conformed with 5o1(c)(3).”
It was, to Gingrich and his allies, a peculiar accusation. All during the investigation, they had tried to tell the committee that they did seek legal advice—lots of it—before beginning the class. “We had two lawyers who looked over our shoulder on this thing,” recalls Jeffrey Eisenach, the close Gingrich associate who heads the Progress and Freedom Foundation. “Then Kennesaw State had lawyers looking at it. Then we had an opinion from a former head of the IRS. The whole notion that he didn’t consult enough lawyers was a farce.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?