US & Canada

Gingrich says Freddie Mac never paid him to lobby

Newt Gingrich at a debate in Michigan on 9 November 2011
Image caption In 2008, Newt Gingrich criticised Barack Obama's contributions from Freddie Mac

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has defended the large fees he was paid by a federal mortgage lender.

He was reacting to a Bloomberg report that he had earned up to $1.8m (£1.1m) as a consultant from 1999-2008.

The former congressman says he never lobbied on behalf of Freddie Mac and did not confirm how much he was paid by an organisation he would now abolish.

This week, opinion polls saw Mr Gingrich rise above rival Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.

Federally backed Freddie Mac and its larger sister institution, Fannie Mae, own or guarantee about half of all US mortgages.

Although embraced by many on the political left as champions of affordable housing, the lenders are blamed by Republicans for the US housing meltdown.

Monthly retainer

A Freddie Mac spokesperson said Mr Gingrich had been paid for consulting services, not lobbying.

Campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, the former House of Representatives Speaker sought to cast his work with the lender in a positive light.

"It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington," he told reporters. "We just tried four years of amateur ignorance, and it didn't work very well.

"So having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."

Mr Gingrich said he had been hired to give "strategic advice over a long period of time" to Freddie Mac, although he could not specify exactly how much he was paid.

Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Mr Gingrich had been hired "to build bridges to Capitol Hill Republicans and develop an argument on behalf of the company's public-private structure that would resonate with conservatives seeking to dismantle it".

The story said Mr Gingrich's relationship with Freddie Mac began five months after he resigned in 1999 from Congress and as House Speaker.

He was paid a monthly retainer of between $25,000 and $30,000 until 2002. Mr Gingrich was contracted again by the group from 2006-08 for a total of $600,000.

In a CNBC televised debate last week, Mr Gingrich said he had been approached by the lender to give advice as a "historian".

He told the debate that he had warned the organisation its lending practices were "insane", and their business model was in a "bubble".

Freddie Mac has disputed this account.

In his latest book, To Save America, Mr Gingrich has advocated replacing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with smaller, private organisations.

But in Iowa on Wednesday, Mr Gingrich defended Freddie Mac's work, saying: "Every American should be interested in expanding housing opportunities."

During a televised debate in October, he criticised Democrats for their close ties to Freddie Mac lobbyists.

And in the 2008 presidential race, Mr Gingrich criticised Barack Obama for accepting campaign contributions from executives of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Mr Gingrich's rise in the polls has placed him under more scrutiny.

A Public Policy Polling survey published on Monday put him in first place at 28%.

Georgia businessman Herman Cain was at 25% and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on 18%.

A CNN/ORC International poll released on the same day put Mr Gingrich in second place, between Mr Romney and Mr Cain.

As House Speaker between 1995-99, Mr Gingrich presided over the longest federal government shutdown in US history.

The deadlock ended after 21 days when then-President Bill Clinton presented a budget that promised to close the federal deficit in seven years.

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