A spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich Monday defended a job given to Gingrich’s wife by a company seeking to run a free-trade zone in Israel.
Marianne Gingrich was hired in September by the Israel Export Development Co., a Jerusalem-based company owned by American businessmen, to recruit U.S. businesses for what is to be a tax-free, bureaucracy-free business park in Israel, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The company, made up of such business owners as CBS President Laurence Tisch and clothing magnate Sy Syms, has been promoting the idea of a free-trade zone to the Israeli government for the past two years and has lobbied members of Congress, including Gingrich, to build support. The company is seeking the Israeli government’s approval to run the zone.
Tony Blankley, a spokesman for the Georgia Republican, said Monday that Marianne Gingrich, as vice president for business development, is being paid a base salary of $2,500 a month - or $30,000 a year - plus commissions for any businesses she recruits for the trade zone.
The job could raise the question of whether Marianne Gingrich, who has no prior experience in trade development, was being used to help the company gain the favor of the Israeli government, which is dependent on U.S. foreign aid. In his powerful role of House speaker, Gingrich has influence over legislation that could affect trade development.
Blankley insisted that Marianne Gingrich’s job was clear of “any appearance of impropriety” because the work did not involve the U.S. government.
“I think she’s gone to the other side of the planet to avoid any connection with business in Washington,” Blankley said. “She couldn’t go any further without coming back.”
But controversy over her job appears to have caught up with the speaker’s wife.
There is a very real ethical question involving “linkage between public policy and private gain,” said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity.
“It sounds as though she got the job because she is (Gingrich’s) wife. She has no apparent background in trade or the Mideast,” said Lewis. “It gives the appearance that Gingrich does a favor for this company and his wife gets a job.”
“It’s all very murky right now,” said Lewis. “Until we learn more, there is a substantial cloud hanging over the Gingriches.”
Gingrich defended his wife’s job, saying there’s no conflict of interest since she will be dealing with private businesses, not federal officials. He said he pulled no strings and that his support for free trade with Israel is years long, not a sudden conversion to aid his wife’s employability.
“We live in a modern age where spouses have individual jobs,” Gingrich said. “If you take a totally private sector job and refuse to lobby the executive branch or Congress, it’s going to be fairly hard for somebody to attack you for it. But I’m sure we’ll be attacked for it.”
Before his wife was hired by IEDC, Gingrich promoted the free-trade zone idea to top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
“He’s endorsed enterprise zones in America,” Blankley said. “He endorsed GATT. Anywhere he goes, he endorses free-trade zones. I don’t think that has any bearing on later decisions made by others.”(End optional trim)Representatives of IEDC in cluding Vin Weber, a former congressman and close Gingrich ally who was on IEDC’s payroll as a consultant until six months ago - lobbied Gingrich about the free-trade zone concept, IEDC comptroller Laurence Wald said.
Wald said his company lobbied a number of members of Congress, including Gingrich, to try to build U.S. support for the concept. “The U.S. government has a lot of influence over the government of Israel.” Wald acknowledged that Marianne Gingrich had been hired in large measure because of her contacts.
“She knows a lot of people, in business - and politics, of course. There’s no hiding that.”