By PHILIP ELLIOTT
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich on Wednesday declined to ask the Justice Department to release thousands of records from the House Ethics Committee's investigation into his conduct as speaker in the 1990s.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond likened the request from the open-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to "wild goose chases."
The organization asked the Justice Department to release documents forwarded from the House in 1997 after it investigated Gingrich's use of tax-exempt organizations for political gain.
Gingrich spent much of his time in office dogged by ethics complaints. Almost all, brought by Democrats, were dismissed.
But the Republican-led House reprimanded him in 1997 after he admitted misleading congressional investigators probing allegations that he misused tax-exempt dollars for a college class. Gingrich agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty — unprecedented at the time — to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of probe.
The House committee never concluded whether tax laws were violated, and the Internal Revenue Service later cleared the organization involved.
"We point CREW back to the IRS final ruling — exonerating every politically motivated charge," Hammond said.
Even so, Gingrich's Democratic and Republican opponents alike have called the penalty a "fine" and see it as a way to damage his political fortunes.
Rival Mitt Romney's allies have cited the penalty in ads against Gingrich. "Newt has a ton of baggage," the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC said in one ad that ran ahead of Gingrich's loss in Florida. "He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the Justice Department for the records last month, but the department denied the request unless Gingrich agreed to open the files.
"As a candidate for president, Mr. Gingrich's congressional record should be an open book," CREW chief Melanie Sloan said. "The records of the ethics inquiry could shed substantial light on Mr. Gingrich's conduct while in the House. Americans should have the opportunity to evaluate that information in considering Mr. Gingrich's candidacy."
The organization also asked the Internal Revenue Service for its files from the time. The IRS did not respond and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)