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Message to Newt: Character Counts

Newt was the First Speaker to be disciplined for Ethical Wrongdoing

It’s not about his affairs or alleged request for an open marriage. It’s not even about his book deal in 1983 when he established a limited partnership to pull together about two dozen of his biggest campaign contributors to finance his book. Nor is it about other charges of alleged misuse of official resources including using staff and office equipment to develop the manuscript. Don’t get me wrong. These are moral and ethical lapses.

For me, questions about Newt Gingrich’s character center on the improper use of official resources in preparation of a college course. This lapse in judgment deals with the ethical responsibilities of a college professor. It is near and dear to my heart as a professor who teaches ethics. Moreover, it is the only one of eighty-four ethics charges filed against former Speaker Gingrich that he admitted to and for which he was sanctioned. Gingrich is the only House Speaker to resign as a result of an ethics investigation by the House.

Gingrich's rollercoaster ride as a Presidential candidate and remarkable comeback win last night in South Carolina can be attributed to his in-your-face style of debating that includes attacking the elite media. This is exactly what many Republican voters want. The reason is we have become a divided country. We live in a time with an "us against them" mentality; the 1%ers versus the 99%ers.

Given that Gingrich may be the winner of the Republican nomination in 2012, I must raise the question whether such a person should become President of the U.S. Have we slid so far down the ethical slippery slope that one’s character no longer counts in picking a leader of the free world?

Last Friday, Politico posted the several-hundred-pages-long, four-part House Ethics Committee report on the charges against Newt Gingrich from his days in Congress. The report details numerous alleged ethical violations including the misuse of official resources in preparation of a college course "Renewing American Civilization" during 1994-1995. The report is good reading if you are an insomniac.

There were eighty-four ethics charges filed against former Speaker Gingrich during his term. I focused on Part 3 of the report that dealt with the college course. Following an investigation by the House Ethics Committee, Gingrich was reprimanded and required to reimburse the House $300,000 for its investigation expenses. Gingrich acknowledged in January 1997 that "In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee".

The House Ethics Committee concluded that inaccurate information supplied to investigators represented "intentional or ... reckless" disregard of House rules. Special Counsel James M. Cole concluded that Gingrich violated federal tax law and had lied to the ethics panel in an effort to force the committee to dismiss the complaint against him. The full committee panel did not agree whether tax law had been violated and left that issue up to the IRS.

Gingrich’s ethical lapses exemplify the persistent problem in politics of using one’s position of power to gain favored treatment with an individual or organization. In this case Gingrich sought to personally benefit from an improper relationship with the Progress and Freedom Foundation that provided financial support related to the course.

In ethics we call this egoistic behavior because the offending party (Gingrich) failed to consider how his actions might affect other stakeholders including Congress as an institution and the American people. An egoistic like Gingrich acts purely out of self-interest. Perhaps this isn’t surprising in Gingrich’s case because he appears to have a “grandiose” ego as evidenced during the Presidential debates.

Gingrich’s major ethical failing is that he had a conflict of interests in using a tax-exempt entity in support of his college course; he also used official government resources for the same purpose. He violated the public trust in using the people’s money for his own selfish interests. The fact that he tried to cover up his actions is nothing new in politics.

Newt is a hypocrite. Going back in time to 1987, and somewhat ironically, Gingrich led the charge against Representative Jim Wright, when he accused the Speaker of ethics violations. Gingrich claimed that Wright had violated House rules in his dealings with a Texas developer and in the manner by which he had profited from sales of a book. Gingrich won a major coup in 1989 when the House Ethics Committee formally charged Wright with sixty-nine ethics violations and Wright resigned from the House. Guess who succeeded Wright?

Should character play a role in choosing a Presidential nominee? I don’t think personal issues should make the difference between supporting and not supporting a candidate. As many have pointed out, Gingrich asked for forgiveness for his extra-marital affairs and he claims to have seen the light. Even hardened criminals are given a second chance after serving time for their crime.

However, character should be an important consideration when a politician abuses his office for personal gain; when a politician lies in an ethics committee investigation; and when a politician hypocritically goes after other politicians when he, himself, is similarly flawed. It’s not only the Jim Wright situation that concerns me but let's not forget that Gingrich led the charge in the House during the 1998 impeachment hearings of President Clinton, all the while he was having his second extramarital affair with his to-be-third wife, Calista.

People who criticize others for the same behavior that they engage in are, in my opinion, not worthy of the public trust because they act as though there are two sets of rules – one for themselves and one for everyone else.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 22, 2012