The war between the Gingrich and Romney camps is escalating over the former speaker’s threats to sue TV stations that continue to air attack ads by a Romney super PAC claiming that he was "fined" $300,000 for ethics violations.
In a letter sent to TV stations in Florida and South Carolina, Stefan Passantino, national counsel to the Gingrich presidential campaign, wrote that the ads asserting that Gingrich was "fined" for violating House ethics rules are "NOT TRUE" and represent "a defamatory communication which exposes this station to potential civil liability.
"In turn, we do hereby DEMAND that your station immediately REFUSE, and if started, CEASE airing any such advertisements," continues the letter, which is dated Jan. 6. Passantino added in an email Wednesday to NBC News: “With this letter, Newt Gingrich has put Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC on notice that the free ride they have enjoyed to misstate Newt’s record are over. Discussing true facts concerning one’s record are fine, using SuperPAC funds to mislead voters will no longer be tolerated.”
In fact, Passantino asserts, the $300,000 that Gingrich paid in 1997 after a House Ethics Committee investigation was to "reimburse" the House for "some costs" of the probe – and did not constitute a fine.
But Charles Spies, a lawyer for Restore Our Future, has fired back, saying the group plans to re-air the claim that Gingrich was fined in a new round of ads in Florida in the next few days. He also told NBC News that "no station has pulled the ads" as a result of the Gingrich threat.
The letter from the Gingrich campaign "is a desperate attempt to conceal Gingrich's ethics baggage in the lead up to Florida's presidential primary election," Spies wrote in his own letter to TV station managers this week.
"Although it is understandable that Mr. Gingrich wishes that he wasn't the only Speaker of the House in history to be fined (overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Congress) $300,000 for ethics violations, that is nonetheless his baggage to live with."
Spies attached to his response letter a print-out of news stories from January 1997, many of which widely reported the $300,000 payment by Gingrich as a "fine," although usually in headlines. He also attached a print-out of a dictionary definition of the word "fine" and an assessment by PolitiFact, the fact-checking organization, concluding that Gingrich's complaints about the wording of the ads were groundless.
The dispute revolves around a two-year House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Gingrich improperly used a college course, funded by political donors, to promote political causes – potentially violating federal tax laws as well as House ethics rules. The probe was headed by a special counsel, James Cole, who now serves as deputy U.S. attorney general at the Justice Department.
In his letter, Passantino, the lawyer for Gingrich, quoted from the 1997 House Ethics Committee report on the matter that referred to the "appropriate sanction" for Gingrich to be a "reprimand" and a "payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation in the amount of $300,000." (Gingrich agreed to pay the $300,000.) Passantino noted that the committee's report specifically did not use the word "fine."
In its analysis, the PolitFact looked at the broader context: The committee found that the college course that Gingrich had taught at Kennesaw State College while serving in the House was financed by donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations who were solicited to provide support with the understanding that it would be a nonpolitical, tax-exempt project.
In fact, the Ethics Committee found, the course was "actually a coordinated effort" to "help in achieving a partisan, political goal" that might not quality for tax-exempt status. (The IRS, however, never imposed any penalties.) In addition, the committee found that Gingrich's lawyers submitted letters about the course that were "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable"—and that Gingrich should have known this.
The full House voted overwhelmingly, 395 to 28, to adopt the Ethics Committee report and impose the $300,000 penalty.
"In the case of Gingrich's ethics fine, the Super PAC Restore Our Future has its history correct," PolitiFact concluded in its analysis. "Gingrich was fined $300,000 for ethics violations, and we rate the statement True.”