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Gingrich operations and tax laws again IRS: Its rejection of tax-exempt status for a class for Republican political activists may have led to the ethics case against the House speaker.

January 12, 1997|By Damon Chappie

Gingrich said that the idea to teach the course "arose wholly independent of GOPAC, because the course, unlike the committee, is nonpartisan and apolitical."

But Cole uncovered letters sent by GOPAC and signed by Gingrich that described the partisan, political role of the course and directly contradicted Gingrich's later statements to the ethics committee.

The goal of the course, Gingrich wrote, was to activate 200,000 citizen activists. "In essence, if we can reach Americans through my course, independent expenditures, GOPAC and other strategies, we just might unseat the Democratic majority in the House in 1994 and make government accountable again."

Gingrich wrote that the course "will provide the structure to build an offense so that Republicans can break through dramatically in 1996."

But the ethics investigation concluded that the course's message "was also the main message of GOPAC and the main message of virtually every political campaign speech made by Mr. Gingrich in 1993 and 1994. The course was, among other things, the primary means for developing and disseminating this message."

Filings to the IRS showed that the academy offered an intensive, ten-week crash course in the nuts and bolts of campaign and political management.

Students did not pay tuition; the academy paid students a $300 weekly stipend for attending the classes.

"The academy is merely a school," it said in filings, and would not lobby or intervene in any campaigns. The group said it planned to raise at least $300,000 in tax-deductible contributions to help finance the academy.

But the school was run by Republicans and for Republican students. Importantly, though, both the IRS and the Tax Court agreed that despite those ties, the academy was not intervening in political campaigns or lobbying for legislation. Indeed, the academy was an educational group, the court ruled.

But the central issue -- the same issue discussed in the ethics committee's findings -- is whether the extensive ties to the Republican Party meant that it served private interests rather than public interests.

The court sided with the IRS in ruling that benefits to the Republican Party, even though they were secondary and a byproduct of the primary educational mission, destroyed the academy's request for tax-exempt status.

The academy's activities improperly "serve the private interest of Republican Party entities rather than public interests exclusively," the court ruled.

The decision, considered by tax attorneys to be a landmark ruling, reaffirmed the tax code and a 1945 Supreme Court ruling that held that tax-exempt status cannot be given to activities that benefit private groups.

Celia Roady, the tax expert hired by the ethics committee, concluded that the academy and the Gingrich matters revolved around the same question.

And she concluded, according to the ethics panel, that the activities associated with the Gingrich course violated the tax code because, "among other things, those activities were intended to confer more than insubstantial benefits on Mr. Gingrich, GOPAC, and other Republican entities and candidates."

A tax attorney hired by Gingrich, James Holden, disagreed with that conclusion and said the activities did not violate tax-exempt status. But Holden agreed with Roady that he would advise against using charitable groups in connection with the course.

Frances Hill, a tax attorney specializing in exempt organizations, said it "is clear that the same reasoning was used. And the point is, the Tax Court was right in its ruling" in the academy case. "The case is a credit to the Tax Court."

Damon Chappie wrote this article for Roll Call, an independent, nonpartisan newspaper that covers Congress.

Pub Date: 1/12/97

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