The Romney campaign has been hitting Newt Gingrich hard over the 1990s ethics case that resulted in the former speaker being reprimanded and paying a $300,000 penalty. Romney mentions it often, and his campaign made the ethics case the focus of the most widely viewed attack ad of the Florida primary.
Given all that attention, it's worth asking what actually happened back in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
The Gingrich case was extraordinarily complex, intensely partisan, and driven in no small way by a personal vendetta on the part of one of Gingrich's former political opp onents. It received saturation coverage in the press; a database search of major media outlets revealed more than 10,000 references to Gingrich's ethics problems during the six months leading to his reprimand. It ended with a special counsel hired by the House Ethics Committee holding Gingrich to an astonishingly strict standard of behavior, after which Gingrich in essence pled guilty to two minor offenses. Afterward, the case was referred to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter -- and then, three years later, completely exonerated Gingrich.
It's that last part of the story you don't hear about much.
At the center of the controversy was a course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 at two small Georgia colleges. The class, called "Renewing American Civilization," was conceived by Gingrich and financed by a tax-exempt organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation. G ingrich maintained that the course was a legitimate educational enterprise; his critics said it had little to do with learning and was, in fact, a political exercise in which Gingrich abused a tax-exempt foundation to spread his own partisan message.
The Gingrich case was driven in significant part by a man named Ben Jones. An actor and recovered alcoholic who became famous for playing the dim-witted Cooter in the popular 1980s TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard," Jones ran for Congress as a Democrat from Georgia in 1988. He served two terms, but lost his seat due to redistricting. Attempting a comeback, he ran against Gingrich in 1994 and lost decisively. After that, it's fair to say Jones became obsessed with bringing Gingrich down.
Two days before Election Day 1994, with defeat in sight, Jones hand-delivered a complaint to the House Ethics Committee. (The complaint was printed on "Ben Jones for Congress" stationery. ) Jones charged that Gingrich "fabricated a 'college course' intended, in fact, to meet certain political, not educational, objectives."