By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The man hired by Newt Gingrich more than a decade ago to advise him how to walk the line between consulting and lobbying is the co-author of a leading legal text on lobbying and the chief lobbyist of the American Bar Association.
"Lobbyist" has become something of an insult in the Republican primary, with Mitt Romney accusing Gingrich of being an "influence peddler" who used contacts made when he was speaker of the House of Representatives to push the interests of clients of his consulting firm.
Gingrich rejects the charge and said during a Republican presidential debate on Monday that he hired an expert on U.S. lobbying regulation to make sure his consulting work never strayed into lobbying.
Gingrich did not identify the expert at the time, but his consulting firm confirmed to Reuters that it was Thomas Susman, a lawyer and lobbyist who is well known in Washington.
In an interview, Susman said he took on Gingrich as a client in the fall of 2000, as the former lawmaker was ramping up the consulting firm known as the Gingrich Group.
"He hired me to give him advice on state and federal lobbying requirements," Susman said.
"The subject matter," he added, "was simply to advise him and his associates in his business what the lobbying laws were because he did not want to have to cross the line to register as a lobbyist in any of those jurisdictions."
The decision by Gingrich to seek legal advice demonstrates how complicated lobbying regulations can be.
U.S. law requires a person to register with Congress as a lobbyist if he or she makes at least two contacts with high-level government officials, spends 20 percent or more of his or her time lobbying and gets paid to do it. States have similar laws.
But there are many exceptions, including 17 alone for the phrase "lobbying contact" in a 1995 federal law.
Susman has specialized for years in lobbying compliance. He co-writes "The Lobbying Manual," a legal text now in its fourth edition, and he is a former ethics chairman for the American League of Lobbyists, a trade group.
When Gingrich hired him, Susman managed all legislative and regulatory lobbying-related business at the law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.
Susman said Gingrich wanted advice on what would trigger a requirement for him to register as either a state or federal lobbyist. "It was simply, where's the line, and if we take certain actions, will we be crossing it?" he said.
Susman said he has no memory of why Gingrich was intent on not having to register. There were critical news stories at the time about other former congressmen who had taken lobbying jobs.
"Dole was in the news a lot," Susman said, referring to former U.S. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, who is a lobbyist for Alston & Bird LLP.
Gingrich and Romney are the frontrunners in an intensifying battle to become the Republican candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in presidential elections in November. In Monday's debate, Gingrich said he and his staff "stayed away from lobbying precisely because I thought this kind of defamatory and factually false charge would be made."
JUSTICE PROBE SOUGHT
The criticism has bubbled since November, when Gingrich first faced questions about $1.6 million in payments that his consulting firm received from the mortgage-finance giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich said he never lobbied, and worked instead as a consultant. He released a copy of his contract on Monday.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit group that files ethics complaints against elected officials, this month asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Gingrich violated lobbying law during a 2003 debate over healthcare expansion. Prosecutors have not commented.
Lobbying is among the least regarded U.S. professions. A poll released last month by Gallup Inc found that 62 percent of respondents had a low or very low opinion of the honesty and ethics of lobbyists, below all other jobs except members of Congress.
There were about 12,200 registered federal lobbyists during 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. They represent a wide array of clients, including major corporations like AT&T Inc, professional associations like the American Medical Association, unions and many charities.
Susman said most of his work for Gingrich came within a year or two of his hiring in 2000.
Attorney-client relationships are often confidential, but Susman said Gingrich consented at the time to let him publicize his work for Gingrich. Susan Meyers, a spokeswoman for the Gingrich Group, confirmed the relationship on Tuesday.
Susman left Ropes & Gray in 2008 to become the chief lobbyist of the American Bar Association. Part of his job is pushing Congress to implement recommendations from a task force on lobbying regulation.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Eric Effron and Eric Walsh)