Sept. 14 2006 11:17 AM

 Critics Pick a Bone With Gingrich

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

       WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov. 31)--Aides to Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, hastened yesterday to deny allegations about the speaker's Reading for Dollars Foundation. The radical magazine Class War has claimed that "financial irregularities abound" in the foundation's accounting, and that money collected for the reading project may have been used instead for political purposes.

       It is alleged that the foundation's Form 990, the yearly financial filing a tax-exempt nonprofit organization must make to the Internal Revenue Service, is not available for inspection. The Washington Post has been unable to locate the Form 990 filing for the year about which the allegations are made.

       No claims have been made about the foundation's financial filings for last year, and these appear to be in order, with 70 percent of expenditure going in payouts to children, the purpose of Reading for Dollars.

       Allegations are also made that among books on the Reading for Dollars program were titles which Speaker Gingrich had placed on a reading list he compiled for legislators last year. They include Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive and Mary E. Boone's Leadershipand the Computer.

       Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a long-standing critic of the speaker, asked "How are kids supposed to read grown-up books like that?" and called the program "a blatant attempt to propagandize children." Conyers added that a congressional investigation "could perhaps find out where the money went" from the foundation.

       Speaker Gingrich is at present on a paleontological dig in Zimbabwe. He could not be contacted by telephone or e-mail. Reached by a correspondent and told of the charges, he approved a short statement from an aide: "I suspect that if I were a liberal, [my work] would be a wonderful thing, an example of compassion, an example of innovation, an example of reaching out to kids. Instead, it becomes one more opportunity to focus only on the financing and to do so misleadingly."

       Reading for Dollars was founded in 1995, to encourage underprivileged children to read. Last year, Gingrich made a 12-city tour promoting the program, under which each child is paid $2 for every book he or she reads.

       The charitable foundation is based in Washington, D.C. Today, the mansion on 16th Street which houses its offices was shut. There were several days' newspapers in a pile inside the gate, and the telephone was not answered.

       The foundation's nine board members include Gordon Duke of the Bruns and Co. brokerage, William McConnor, owner of McConnor Buick in Tampa, and Stacey Petersen, May Kay distributor in Philadelphia. All declined to discuss the magazine's claims.

       Gingrich's aides have compared the allegations to the recent but now discredited accusation in the Washington Times magazine Insight that White House officials had "sold" burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery. Some of the allegations made by Class War are unconfirmed. There is no evidence of misappropriation of funds.

       However, FEC filings confirm the claim that all those foundation directors are donors to Republican candidates, several to Gingrich's campaign. As the magazine story says, the foundation and Gingrich's 1996 re-election campaign both maintain checking accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington. The claim about the two book lists has also been substantiated.

       This is the latest of a series of charges which have dogged Gingrich. In 1994, the year the Republicans swept Congress and he became speaker, he committed what he later admitted was an ethical lapse by signing a $4.5 million book contract.

       The publisher was a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and Congress was at the time considering telecommunications legislation directly affecting Murdoch's interests. Earlier this year, the speaker was fined $300,000 by the House ethics committee for furnishing "inaccurate" information to investigators.

       Gingrich's visit to Zimbabwe comes months after he went on a dig in Montana where he said he found a dinosaur bone. The circumstances of the find have been disputed, though accusations that it was planted have not been verified. The paleontologist Howard Lacey of the University of Montana has said that remains of the kind Gingrich found are in any case commonplace in the state: "Kick over a rock and you'll find a fossil."

       Kicking over rocks in Zimbabwe, Gingrich said good-humoredly, "Right now, sir, I'm just looking for bone!" He does not deny that the foundation board members are political allies, but insists that the question about the elusive Form 990 will be answered when he returns to Washington.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Randlords, and is a contributor to British publications too numerous to mention.