WASHINGTON - It should be clear by now that Newt Gingrich, despite his denials, was lobbying for Freddie Mac, the home loan giant at the core of the subprime mortgage scandal.
Former governor Mitt Romney leveled that charge at the former House speaker in Monday's Republican debate in Tampa, and independent public interest groups and fact checkers have said Romney is right.
Gingrich and his well-heeled consulting business were paid big money -- at least $1.8 million -- by Freddie Mac, a federally-backed agency, that had to be bailed out by the taxpayers to the tune of more than $52 billion.
At first, Gingrich said he was hired by Freddie Mac as an "historian." But he soon backed off that preposterous defense. How many historians are paid $1.8 million?
Then it gradually became clear that he was doing more for Freddie Mac than his second fall-back story, providing strategic advice as a consultant.
This was a government-sponsored program that was in deep trouble, but Gingrich said he told top Freddie Mac officials at the outset that its business model was "insane." Officials there said that no one who sat in on its meetings with him over an eight year period remember him saying this.
More importantly, it turns out his role was much more than offering advice on how they ran their business. It was to help them gain access to key members of Congress in the House where Gingrich knew all the players in housing policy and the levers to pull to get things done.
On the eve of the Tampa debate, Gingrich's campaign released a portion of the contracts he signed with Freddie Mac. A statement on his campaign web site said that "at no time did Gingrich lobby for Freddie Mac," or "advocate against pending legislation affecting Freddie Mac."
But independent sources, and a statement put out by the Gingrich campaign in November, pointed out that the agency "was interested in advice on how to reach out to more conservatives."
What this means is Freddie Mac wanted to meet with key conservative members of Congress to make their own case about how the agency was dealing with its debts and digging out of the massive subprime mortgage hole at the taxpayers' expense.
Notably, during his work at Freddie Mac, Gingrich dealt dealt directly with agency's chief lobbyist, Craig Thomas, who was identified as "project director" in Gingrich's contract. In other words, he was working for the agency's lobbying shop.
"Thomas was listed as a lobbyist for Freddie Mac in 2000, 2005 and 2006, according to disclosure records," writes Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen.
But does this prove, as Romney charged in Monday night's debate, that Gingrich "has worked for 15 years lobbying?
An investigation into Gingrich's work at Freddie Mac by the Politifact.com web site and others has concluded that it does.
"Experts we spoke with and the research we reviewed showed the 'strategic advice' category is a way of using influence without having to register as a lobbyist," Politifact writes in its Truth-O-Meter feature.
"There's a lot of activity that ordinary people would think of as lobbying that doesn't trigger the obligation to register as a lobbyist under federal law," attorney Joseph Sandler, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb told Politifact.
"Strategic advice is one of those kinds of things that doesn't," he said.
Sandler was one of four co-chairman of an American Bar Association task force that has recommended that federal lobbying laws be changed to require that people like Gingrich who give strategic advice define their work as "lobbying support."
After digging into Gingrich's claims, Politifact reached this conclusion:
"Romney said Newt Gingrich's contract was with 'the lobbyists at Freddie Mac.' Gingrich provided strategic advice, a way of wielding political influence without having to register as a lobbyist. The primary point of contact on the contract was one of Freddie's lobbyists. We rate Romney's statement True."
And then there is this from the Center for Responsive Politics: "Newt Gingrich is certainly not alone among well-heeled political players who say they just offer consulting services or strategic advice -- without needing to register as lobbyists. But it's a stretch to claim that they aren't part of the influence game," says spokesman Michael Beckel.
Why does this matter in the fierce presidential primary battle between Romney and Gingrich for the Republican nomination?
The GOP's conservative base is searching for someone from outside of Washington to tackle the economic, debt-ridden mess that President Obama has overseen during the past three years, with little to show for it.
Gingrich, for all his political talents, is the quintessential Washington insider, peddling influence in government and then trying to wiggle out of being caught by playing word games. And that raises profound issues about Gingrich's truthfulness.
He denied he was lobbying, insisting that he was hired to be an historian, when he was selling his services to one of the richest bidders in government. He was being paid well out of Freddie Mac's coffers while it was sowing the seeds of a housing scandal that resulted in an economic meltdown that has hurt millions of Americans and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
In other words, as a paid insider, he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
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