Sept. 14 2006 11:16 AM

 Speaker Gingrich Challenged on Charitable Foundation

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By Michael Specter

      WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov. 31)--House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who earlier this year was fined and severely rebuked by his colleagues for ethical improprieties, faced a new controversy today over his stewardship of a charity that encourages poor children to read.

       The Reading for Dollars Foundation was conceived by Gingrich in 1995 as an object lesson in the power of market economics: According to its mandate it pays underprivileged students $2 for each book they finish.

       But officials at the Internal Revenue Service, who are required to make public the tax-exempt information for all such nonprofit foundations--said today that the agency never received any such filing from Gingrich's group this year.

       The foundation also appeared to pay $20--10 times the usual fee--to any child willing to wade through a book written by the speaker himself. In addition, several of the foundation's directors--as well as its chief auditor--were also central figures in Gingrich's 1996 re-election effort.

       "I suspect if I were a liberal, [my work] would be a wonderful thing," Gingrich, shirtless and sweating in the heat, said in Zimbabwe this evening, where he is on vacation digging for fossils. "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."

       The latest allegations against the speaker emerged today in a cover story in the Washington weekly news magazine, Class War, whose editors and reporters have never made any attempt to disguise their loathing of Gingrich or their distaste for his conservative political agenda.
       Some of the charges appear absurd. The article states ominously, for instance, that both the foundation and Gingrich's campaign committee maintain checking accounts at Washington's popular Riggs Bank. So do half the businesses in the capital. The author, Pavia Page, also implies that Gingrich--one of the nation's most enthusiastic amateur paleontologists--stole a dinosaur bone that he displays prominently in his office.

       Gingrich shrugged off questions about the tax forms today, but suggested that, as he put it, a well-meaning underling probably decided to pay the bonus for young readers willing--and able--to read the Speaker's own work. "Right now sir, I'm just looking for bone," he shouted before ending the brief, unexpected interview and returning to his dig.

       If the form was filed and has simply been misplaced by the IRS, then the other allegations would have little meaning. Still, while the organization filed its tax papers--known officially as Form 990--last year without incident, agency sources said this evening that nobody there remembers seeing this year's documents. None of the three members of the foundation's board contacted by the Washington Post were willing to discuss the activities of the charity. Attempts to interview the other six members of the board--all of whom are large donors to Republican political organizations--were unavailing.

       We sent the IRS that form last year and lost all of our records in an office fire," Reading for Dollars Treasurer Florence Floom, was quoted as telling Class War, in the article. Floom also served as treasurer in Speaker Gingrich's successful re-election campaign in 1996. She is highly controversial in Washington financial and political circles. Recruited by Gingrich in 1996 from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's organization, it was Floom herself who prepared the Rev. Moon's tax returns the year he was arrested for income-tax evasion.

       Page, in her article, contends--without documentation--that the foundation raised more than $1.2 million this year but spent less than 10 percent of it on children. If so the numbers would have changed radically in a single year. Financial forms from the foundation on record at the IRS for last year show 70 percent of all money raised by Reading for Dollars going to children.

       Page, who conceded in an interview that she is motivated by her anger at Gingrich and his politics, attempts to make a connection in her article between the Rev. Moon's Unification Church and Gingrich's well known love of dinosaurs. But other than Floom's move from the church to Gingrich, she provides no grounds for such accusations.

       There was no sign of life today at the foundation headquarters, a beautiful Queen Anne-style mansion on 16th Street, in the Adams Morgan section of the District. Phone calls went unanswered, lights were off, the gates to the mansion--built in 1899 by an heir to the International Harvester fortune--were locked.

       Children interviewed on the street say they have never heard of Reading for Dollars. Most had never hear of Gingrich either.

       "Mister I'll read a comic book for a dollar if you've got one," said one sly little boy, who ran off before waiting to find out if his offer would be accepted.

Michael Specter is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.

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