Byron York

Jones teamed up with his friend, Democratic Rep. David Bonior, to push the case relentlessly. Under public pressure, the Ethics Committee -- made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats -- took up the case and hired an outside counsel, Washington lawyer James Cole, to conduct the investigation.

Cole developed a theory in which Gingrich, looking for a way to spread his political views, 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. Cole didn't argue that the course was not educational; it plainly was. But Cole suggested that the standard for determining wrongdoing was whether any ill intent lurked in Gingrich's heart, even if the course was unquestionably educational.

It is hard to con vey today how much the media became preoccupied with the case, and how much pressure fell on Gingrich and Republicans to end the ordeal. In January 1997, Gingrich agreed to plead guilty to the previously unknown offense of failing to seek sufficiently detailed advice from a tax lawyer before proceeding with the course. (Gingrich had, in fact, sought advice from two such lawyers in relation to the course.) Gingrich also admitted that he had provided "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information to Ethics Committee investigators. That "inaccurate" information was largely Gingrich's contention that the course was not political -- a claim the IRS later would support.

Why did Gingrich admit wrongdoing? "The atmosphere at the time was so rancorous, partisan, and personal that everyone, including Newt, was desperately seeking a way to end the whole thing," Gingrich attorney Jan Baran said in 1999. "He was admitting to w hatever he could to get the case over with."

It was a huge victory for Democrats. They had deeply wounded the speaker. But they wanted more, and they pressed the IRS to investigate.

Experts examined every word Gingrich spoke in every class; they examined the financing and administration of the course; and they examined how the course might have fit into Gingrich's political network.

In the end, in 1999, the IRS released a highly detailed 74-page report that concluded the course was, in fact, a legitimate educational exercise. "The 'Renewing American Civilization' course was educational ... and not biased toward any of those who were supposed to be benefited," the IRS concluded.

bottom line: Gingrich acted properly and violated no laws. Of course, by that time, Gingrich was out of office, widely presumed to be guilty of something, and his career in politics was (seemingly) o ver. Now he's having to fight the fight all over again.

Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner