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Major GOPAC Donors Got Special Access, Files Show : Politics: Gingrich group offered personal attention from the Republican representative to those giving $10,000.

December 17, 1995|GLENN F. BUNTING and DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — To hear the defenders of Newt Gingrich tell it, the embattled House speaker is guilty of nothing more than mastering the art of politics.

But interviews and recently released federal records show that Gingrich has invited critical attention by bestowing special treatment on donors who gave substantial sums to his pet political project.

The project was the GOP Action Committee, called GOPAC, which raised untold millions of dollars over the last decade for the Republican revolution that Gingrich was fomenting. By using GOPAC, Gingrich could encourage corporate executives to donate unlimited amounts with the assurance that their contributions would not be revealed in records open to the public.

In letters to supporters, GOPAC left little doubt that those who gave at least $10,000 a year would enjoy extraordinary access to the Republican congressman from Georgia.

Part of what made GOPAC unique, according to the letters, was the opportunity to "work with Newt Gingrich and to influence his issues and direction." Gingrich himself extended invitations for contributors to accompany him on 6 a.m. walks for "an hour of uninterrupted conversation."

Sometimes, the treatment exceeded casual conversation and a ready ear, according to voluminous records obtained through the Federal Election Commission and the Freedom of Information Act.

For example, when the nation's largest producer of cement was struggling to win a favorable government ruling in a trade dispute with Mexican competitors, the firm wrote a $10,000 check to GOPAC and received prompt assistance from Gingrich and a fellow congressman who was GOPAC's Texas chairman.

On other occasions, Gingrich helped GOPAC donors by arranging meetings with officials of George Bush's administration and relaying specific business concerns about government regulations.

These actions raise new questions about whether the man who now is House speaker exceeded the bounds of propriety. Although it is accepted practice for members of Congress to aggressively seek financial support, they are prohibited by law from taking official action in exchange for anything of value, including contributions.

Gingrich's office referred calls seeking his comment to GOPAC Executive Director Lisa B. Nelson. She said Gingrich, who resigned as GOPAC chairman this year, responds to requests for assistance based on merit.

"In Newt's case, it doesn't matter whether they give money or not," Nelson said. "Every day of the week he meets with people who don't give a dime. He would help them as much as he would help anyone else."

A 1991 internal analysis of GOPAC operations warned that Gingrich could be criticized for soliciting large sums from donors who seek to gain special treatment but dismissed the concern as a false allegation.

"There is no hint of any contributor who gives money in return for influence," the analysis concluded. "All of our contributors . . . want no more from their contributions than a chance to contribute to a cause they believe in."

Since his peers elected him speaker in January, Gingrich has been dogged by allegations that he violated ethical standards.

Democrats filed a new complaint with the House Ethics Committee on Thursday, accusing Gingrich of breaking tax and election laws by using up to $20 million in GOPAC funds to advance his political career. The charges stem from a Federal Election Commission lawsuit that contends GOPAC created "the appearance of corruption" by ignoring federal restrictions and spending large sums on GOP congressional candidates--including at least $250,000 to reelect Gingrich himself. Gingrich has called the charges phony.

Common Cause President Ann McBride last week urged the Ethics Committee to examine Gingrich's role with GOPAC. "Under such circumstances--with multiple large campaign contributions tied to an implicit request for official help--a reasonable person would expect that a member of Congress would return the contribution check," McBride wrote.

Earlier this month, the ethics panel voted to hire an outside counsel to determine whether the financing of a college course that Gingrich taught violated tax laws. The bipartisan committee also found that Gingrich broke House rules by misusing official resources but cleared him of other accusations.

Interviews with people involved in GOPAC's transactions and a Times review of thousands of internal documents unveiled as part of the FEC lawsuit--including memos and solicitation letters written from 1989 to 1991--shed added light on how GOPAC raised contributions under Gingrich's leadership. During this period, Gingrich was minority whip--the second-ranking Republican in the House.

Still, much remains unknown about GOPAC, including the total amount of money collected and spent, as well as the identities of donors. The organization has maintained that it is largely exempt from federal election laws that limit individual contributions and ban corporate donations.

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