Russert failed to challenge Gingrich's claim of exoneration by IRS in ethics controversy

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On the December 17 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) claimed that, in 1999, the Internal Revenue Service "said there was nothing wrong" with funding a college course he had taught with tax-deductible donations, for which Gingrich was investigated by the House ethics committee, fined $300,000, and formally reprimanded by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Russert failed to challenge Gingrich's claim. In fact, even though the IRS' final report found no evidence of wrongdoing on Gingrich's part, it also said that the House ethics committee refused to provide all the evidence requested by the agency, despite recommendations from congressional investigators that evidence collected by the ethics committee be sent to the IRS, and that "if the Ethics Committee had rendered full cooperation with our examination, the transcripts might have affected our conclusion."

As Media Matters for America noted when Gingrich's former press secretary and current Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley baselessly claimed that the investigation into Gingrich was a Clinton administration vendetta, the IRS' inquiry was first reported nine months after the ethics committee -- which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans -- unanimously voted in December 1995 to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether Gingrich had violated tax law. The New York Times reported on December 23, 1995, that the ethics committee had selected former Justice Department prosecutor James Cole to "investigate accusations that a course Mr. Gingrich taught at two colleges in Georgia was a political effort intended to circumvent tax laws." The Washington Post also reported on December 23, 1995, that there was a "question of whether Gingrich violated tax laws by using tax-deductible contributions to finance" the college course.

The ethics committee released its final report on January 17, 1997, and voted 7-1 to recommend that the House fine and reprimand for failing to obtain adequate legal advice regarding the courses and for providing false information to the committee. The New York Times reported on January 18, 1997, that "investigators urged the full ethics committee to send the evidence it had collected to the Internal Revenue Service to assist its investigations involving Kennesaw State University and Reinhardt College, where Mr. Gingrich's college course was taught." The IRS released the findings of its investigation in early 1999. According to a February 27, 1999, Los Angeles Times article:

On its face, the IRS finding seems unequivocal. The 74-page document systematically examines the facts in the complex case and determines that the foundation "did not serve the private interests of" Gingrich or the GOP and did not play a role in any campaign.

However, in an unusual caveat, the IRS said that its conclusions were based "upon the facts available to us" and the agency did not have access to transcripts of witnesses' statements before the House Ethics Committee, which the panel refused to provide.

"It is possible that if the Ethics Committee had rendered full cooperation with our examination, the transcripts might have affected our conclusion," the IRS memorandum said.

It still is not clear why the ethics panel did not provide the IRS with the transcripts.

There also have been debates over whether IRS supervisors really examined the evidence fully or simply took a bow in hopes of heading off a clash with a powerful figure.

From the December 17 broadcast of Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: But you were reprimanded by the full House. They --

GINGRICH: For having signed a letter.

RUSSERT: -- and that you paid a fine or -- $300,000 --

GINGRICH: That's right.

RUSSERT: It's significant. It's significant.

GINGRICH: It is. I just said it's significant. And I paid the $300,000. Now, but here's the point: The rest of the stuff in that article about my -- the ethics charges are false. The Internal Revenue Service said there was nothing wrong with the course. I am a Ph.D. in history. I was teaching a college course. It's totally -- it goes back to free speech. I was allowed to teach courses. The Federal Election Commission was reprimanded by a federal judge and told that the charges against GOPAC were totally false. All in the course -- those things didn't make page one. And I fully expected my opponents -- remember, the Democrats were very mad after the '94 election. They had lost power. They -- for the first time in 40 years. They knew it couldn't be their fault, so it must be mine.

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