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Potential GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has promoted public policy positions that closely track the financial interests of companies that underwrite a think tank he founded.
The Center for Health Transformation is part of an elaborate consulting and communications empire Gingrich has built since he left Congress under a political cloud in January 1999. It gives the former House Speaker and Georgia Republican a far-reaching platform for his views, which he airs on television and radio, in paid speeches and in dozens of opinion columns in major newspapers.
Among his ideas is a health system that lets consumers, not health maintenance organizations, choose the best doctors, medical treatments and hospitals. Such a goal would be accomplished with health savings accounts, which are sought by companies that fund Gingrich's think tank. The accounts would encourage people to shop for cheaper care and forgo treatments they do not need.
A second idea, electronic records to keep better track of people's medical care, is a potential boon to technology companies that underwrite the center.
Rarely does Gingrich acknowledge his opinions would benefit the drug makers, insurers and others who each pay the center up to $200,000 annually.
Critics say Gingrich is doing free advertising, not the free thinking he is admired for by conservative supporters. Gingrich aides say his ideas are aimed at helping all people and not a particular company.
Gingrich, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
"This is a massive financial conflict of interest: taking money from organizations that have a set of views, then using the weight of your name, Newt Gingrich, to advance the views of these organizations," said Sid Wolfe, director of health research for Public Citizen, a liberal-leaning watchdog group.
Ellen Miller, an open-government advocate who runs the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, said: "It's a phony think tank. He's nothing but a corporate shill and everything he says about health care should be regarded with complete skepticism."
Gingrich aides say companies give money because of Gingrich's views, not the other way around.
"We've had a very clear vision and strategy in place," said Nancy Desmond, the center's chief executive officer. "People join the center knowing already what we're for. So if they decide to become members of the center, that's generally because they're supportive of the direction we're going."
She said Gingrich occasionally advocates policies with which member companies disagree, adding: "He's really talking about something he believes in. It's not something he's getting paid to make a sales pitch on."
Desmond noted that the center's Web site lists its more than 60 member companies. Aides said the companies pay annual dues ranging from $10,000 to $200,000.
Its founding charter members are:
Aides do not disclose how much Gingrich earns from the center or his other businesses. He does not serve on boards of member companies. Because most of his operations are for-profit companies, they do not have to publicly disclose the same financial information as nonprofit companies.
Gingrich also makes paid speeches, writes books, has a contract with Fox News for commentary, does a daily radio broadcast and has an online newsletter.
Presidential candidates are required to file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission that list sources of their earnings and give a broad picture of their wealth. But because Gingrich has not entered the race, he is under no such requirement.
The center was created in 2003 to find ways to make health care better, cheaper and more modern. It is a significant part of Gingrich's empire. Desmond said Gingrich spends one-third or more of his time on the think thank.
The center, which has Desmond and about 16 other staffers, holds conferences and has projects to produce ideas for goals such as reducing the number of uninsured people and fighting diabetes and Alzheimer's.
The think tank also publishes books, including "Paper Kills: Transforming Health and Healthcare with Information Technology," which has an introduction by Gingrich and was released this month.
It also has produced dozens of opinion columns by Gingrich, who routinely argues for the priorities of its member companies. For example:
Desmond said newspapers are alerted when a Gingrich opinion column specifically mentions a member company. For example, in an opinion column distributed in 2004 by United Press International, he chided labor union health plans for not aggressively marketing health savings accounts, pointing to a success story in Lumenos Inc., owned by WellPoint, a member of Gingrich's center.
A member company's interest was also disclosed in a white paper Gingrich wrote that criticizes drug maker Amgen. Competitor Ortho Biotech is a sister company of Johnson & Johnson Healthcare Systems, a member of Gingrich's think tank.
But many issues are so broad, "we certainly don't mention everyone who would be impacted â€” that basically would be anybody in America," Desmond said.
Gingrich and his businesses advocate ideas and policies, but they do not specifically lobby the government. Yet their activities are not unlike lobbying. Gingrich's consulting firm, a precursor to the center, had a client, Millennium Plastics, that expected the firm would help it break into the lucrative government contracting business, according to a 2001 news release by the company.
The consulting firm has taken a back seat to the health care center, although Desmond said the group still does some consulting.
While the center is organized as a for-profit corporation under federal tax law, Gingrich has been criticized in the past for using nonprofit corporations to promote himself and a partisan political agenda.
After a battle with Democrats, he reached an agreement with the House ethics committee in late 1996. He admitted he had failed to seek proper legal advice on using tax-exempt projects to advance his political goals and that inaccurate statements "in my name and over my signature" had been submitted to the House ethics committee. He was reprimanded by the full House and assessed a $300,000 penalty.
Whether Gingrich runs or not, he has created a lucrative business for himself since leaving the House, spokesman Rick Tyler said.
"He has many blessings," Tyler said. "Clearly, he is doing as well as he's ever done in his life and is enjoying the success."
On the Net:
Gingrich Communications: http://www.newt.org
Center for Health Transformation: http://www.healthtransformation.net
American Solutions for Winning the Future: http://www.americansolutions.com