The Gingriches and Tiffany: When a loan becomes lobbying

By Felix Salmon
May 25, 2011
explainers and analysis of the deal that Newt Gingrich and his wife had with Tiffany, one crucial point seems to have been missed. So well done to SpyTalk for picking up on this:

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Amid all the convoluted explainers and analysis of the deal that Newt Gingrich and his wife had with Tiffany, one crucial point seems to have been missed. So well done to SpyTalk for picking up on this:

At the same time Tiffany & Co. was extending Callista (Bisek) Gingrich a virtual interest-free loan of tens of thousands of dollars, the diamond and silverware firm was spending big bucks to influence mining policy in Congress and in agencies over which the House Agriculture Committee–where she worked–had jurisdiction, official records show…

Tiffany’s annual lobbying expenditures rose from about $100,000 to $360,000 between 2005 and 2009, according to records assembled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization.

There’s enough confusion over the Tiffany’s deal that it certainly looks unusual — while Tiffany’s does extend interest-free loans of up to one year to top clients, Gingrich’s account was open for two consecutive years, despite the fact that Gingrich claimed to be paying no interest on it. And in any case it seems unwise, to say the least, to accept an interest-free loan of more than $250,000 from a company which is lobbying your committee — no matter how rare or common such loans might be.

There’s an irony here: we only know the loan was interest-free because Newt Gingrich went on TV to say so, in order to try to portray himself as fiscally prudent. But now we do know that, the loan begins to look more like an undisclosed lobbying expenditure on the part of Tiffany. Which in many ways is even worse for Gingrich. There must be official rules about accepting interest-free loans from companies lobbying your committee. Is there a case to be made that Callista Gingrich broke those rules?

Update: I just spoke to Newt Gingrich’s press secretary, Rick Tyler. He said that the deal the Gingriches got was the same one that Tiffany’s offers to anybody else: interest free financing for 12 months. And that all debt with Tiffany’s was paid off within a 12-month period. If there was hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt outstanding for a second consecutive year, which there was, then that was new debt, associated with new jewelry purchases.

Is it OK for a Congressional staffer to accept an interest-free loan from a company which is lobbying that staffer’s committee, just so long as the same offer is available to the public generally? I’m not sure about that. But Tyler, for one, sees no problem there.

Update 2: Tiffany spokesman Carson Glover emails to say that the company’s lobbying was aimed at the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over mining, and not the Agriculture Committee, where Callista Gingrich worked. This is more persuasive to me than what Tyler is saying: if SpyTalk is wrong that Ag has jurisdiction over mining, it’s much harder to say that there’s anything scandalous here beyond the sheer amount of money that the Gingriches spend on jewels annually.

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