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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To the campaign trail now and some tough questions being put to Newt Gingrich. Polls now show the former House speaker solidly in the top tier of Republican presidential contenders, but he's been forced to explain a job he took after he left Congress. Gingrich consulted for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. And as NPR's Peter Overby reports, some in Washington insist the consulting work looks a lot like lobbying.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The questions began at the candidates' debate in Michigan last Wednesday. CNBC's John Harwood asked Gingrich what he did for a $300,000 contract with Freddie Mac in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I offered them advice on precisely what they didn't do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OVERBY: This didn't make him a lobbyist, he said. And by the strict legal definition of lobbyist, he's absolutely right.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

GINGRICH: My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me: We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do. I said to them at the time: This is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.

OVERBY: On the campaign trail, Gingrich says Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae should be broken up. At a New Hampshire debate last month, he endorsed the idea of jail time for Democratic lawmakers Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. They chaired the congressional committees overseeing Freddie and Fannie during the 2008 financial meltdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

GINGRICH: You ought to start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, and let's look at the politicians who created the environment, the politicians who profited from the environment and the politicians who put this country in trouble.

OVERBY: Barney Frank, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, says Gingrich is blame-shifting.

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: In 1995, '6, '7, '8, much of what they complain about was happening during that period, and Gingrich, as speaker, presided over a Congress that did nothing about it.

OVERBY: Press accounts in 1999 said Freddie Mac first hired Gingrich that spring when he had just left Congress. His next known contract with Freddie was in 2006. For its part, Freddie Mac won't confirm or deny that it ever hired Gingrich. Guy Cecala is publisher of the industry newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance. He says Freddie wouldn't have hired Gingrich for his historical and financial perspectives.

GUY CECALA: They had rocket scientists and their own brain trust for doing it. What they were looking more for was political protection and cover.

OVERBY: And indeed, NPR spoke with two sources who were at Freddie Mac in '06. They said Gingrich was hired to help Freddie build alliances on Capitol Hill and to burnish its reputation. They said he also met with donors to the company's political action committee. Yesterday, Gingrich told Iowa Public Radio simply that he's never lobbied Congress.

GINGRICH: I explicitly do no lobbying of any kind, and my advice was generic. It wasn't specifically aimed at House Republicans or the Congress in general.

OVERBY: Cecala is dubious.

CECALA: I guess it's not a surprise that, you know, someone's trying to reinvent history in terms of some advice they gave to Freddie Mac.

OVERBY: The reality, he says, is that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae hired legions of former lawmakers because they were the ones who best knew the ins and outs of Capitol Hill. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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