Gingrich money details sought

The Federal Election Commission has called on Newt Gingrich’s campaign to provide more information as to why it has reimbursed the former Georgia congressman and staff hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year.

The FEC letter, dated Feb. 17, comes after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets reported that the campaign paid Gingrich nearly $300,000 for travel and as reimbursement for other purchases.

It is common for candidates and staffers to front money for travel or other purchases, but the FEC said if individual reimbursements exceed $500, more information is required.

Campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said the reimbursements are all related to travel costs paid upfront by Gingrich and his daughter Jackie Cushman. The campaign, which was in dire financial straits for much of last year, did not get its own credit card until the fall, Hammond said, so Gingrich ended up personally paying travel costs for himself and much of his staff.

“Newt would just constantly put his card down,” Hammond said. “That’s what all of this came from.”

Gingrich’s pattern of reimbursing himself and family members continued in January. The campaign reimbursed the candidate more than $88,000 for travel and paid Cushman Enterprises, Jackie’s company, more than $18,000 for travel, strategic consulting and Internet service.

Rick Thompson, an Atlanta-based consultant who helps candidates and elected officials navigate state and federal ethics laws, said federal law does not require Gingrich to disclose what the FEC wants. The request, Thompson said, is based on a commission advisory opinion from 1996, not a rule or regulation that would carry the weight of law.

“There are a lot of people, like the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a bunch of big organizations that report the information the same way,” said Thompson, a former executive director of Georgia’s State Ethics Commission. “It’s almost like a fishing expedition.”

The campaign has until March 23 to respond. The FEC can levy fines against the campaign and, in extreme cases where a candidate is found to have willfully violated the law, can refer the case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Georgia law is different, he said. Candidates here, he said, are required by law to disclose the final recipient of all campaign cash.

The FEC’s letter said the campaign must provide itemized breakdowns of reimbursements to campaign staff. The commission wants the actual vendor to be listed — meaning, for example, that whomever Gingrich paid for the travel should be disclosed. Hammond said the campaign maintains the position that it is not required to itemize all of those expenses.

It’s the second such letter the campaign has received. In September, the FEC asked for a similar breakdown of expenditures as well as a more detailed explanation for other expenditures that were listed in a campaign finance report as going toward “operations” or “operations services.”

In a response to that query, the Gingrich campaign told the FEC that none of the staff reimbursements required additional itemization, but it did not explain why. As for the request for more information of other expenditures, the campaign said it was also not necessary to be reported but that the individuals in question were involved with “regular operations of the campaign,” including scheduling and advance work.

The FEC took no further action.

It’s not unusual for a major federal campaign to be flagged by the FEC. The same has happened to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s rival for the Republican nomination — although not to the other two candidates, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. President Barack Obama, too, has gotten demands from the FEC for changes or more information.

The FEC discovered in a review of reports from both Romney and Obama, for example, that the candidates appeared to have taken contributions from individuals that exceeded federal limits. In both cases the campaigns responded that refunds were being issued.

Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said the campaign is “confident that all of our FEC reports are filed as the law requires.”

-- Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.