Newt Gingrich's decision to release only a portion of his Fannie Mac contract may be doing the candidate more harm than good, causing people, including chief rival Mitt Romney, to question what he may be hiding.
Under pressure from Romney, Gingrich on Monday night disclosed a document showing that he was paid $300,000 by the toxic mortgage giant in 2006 for consulting services. But the lack of any other information from other years in which Gingrich is said to have made more than $1 million from Fannie Mac is fanning the fire that Romney has kindled.
The Romney campaign has already issued statements saying that the lone contract "raises more questions than answers," calling again for Gingrich to "fully disclose" what he did for Freddie Mac.
The contract released by the Center for Health Transformation, formerly the Gingrich Group, which the candidate started and stayed at until he left to run for president, describes him as a "consultant" for Freddie Mac. It states, "Consultant will provide consulting and related services as requested by Freddie Mac's Director, Public Policy in exchange for which Freddie Mac will pay Consultant $25,000 per each full calendar month during which Consultant provides Services."
The technicalities are a bit arcane and muddied. Gingrich never officially registered himself as a lobbyist, but he did meet with elected officials to talk about legislation related to Freddie Mac. According to the federal government's lobbying rules, people who spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying are officially lobbyists. But it's virtually impossible to measure or enforce that.
"It's totally fudge-able and totally nebulous," said Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for ethics changes.
At Monday's debate in Florida, Romney tried to portray Gingrich as a lobbyist, saying that "it was the head lobbyist with Freddie Mac with whom he had a contract." Gingrich maintained that "I have never, ever done any lobbying" for the company, and that he was doing strictly "consulting work."
"If you're paid by health companies that could benefit by this change, you can call it anything you like," Romney said. "I call it influence peddling."
Observers of Washington's lobbyist culture say that generally, Romney was right — Gingrich was a lobbyist even if he wasn't a lobbyist.
Gingrich has suggested that his role with Freddie Mac was not that of a lobbyist because the views he expressed to lawmakers were his own, not those of the company. "We said flatly from day one we will do no lobbying of any kind, and I will not take any client who has a position I don't agree with," Gingrich told a radio host in November.
It doesn't matter if Gingrich never changed his views on the issues for which he was advocating or if he was voicing his own opinions and not those of Freddie Mac, said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy21, a nonpartisan group that favors more transparency in Washington.
"The question of whether he was a lobbyist and lobbied for the company is not a technical question. It's a reality question," Wertheimer said. "And in reality, if he was being paid by the company, and if he urged members to vote in support of a position the company was advocating, he is a lobbyist."
The Romney campaign spent a significant amount of time on Tuesday focusing on Gingrich's Freddie Mac contract -- Romney is doing an event at a home foreclosed by Fannie Mae and the campaign has been blasting press releases while enlisting two congressmen, Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.), for a press call on Gingrich. Its tone was markedly more negative than their approach weeks ago when Romney was the decided front-runner. The campaign was bolstered by an article by the fact-checking website Politifact that said Romney's statement — that Gingrich's contract was with Freddie Mac's lobbyists — is true.
A spokeswoman for Gingrich's group that released his contract didn't respond to a request for information on the former speaker's contracts with Freddie Mac for other years.
To advocates of changing the lobbying rules, Gingrich's phantom lobbying personality is symptomatic of growing behavior: Prominent officials leaving office but spending just as much time in the halls of Congress as they did before, influencing legislation on behalf of clients while not officially registering as lobbyists.
"He was hired because he was the speaker who had these contacts," McGehee said. "He's getting paid, and a private entity is benefiting from his relationships and the knowledge he gave to public officials."