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As consultant Mark McKinnon said a moment ago, Newt Gingrich has built a network of entities informally known as Newt Gingrich Inc. Those enterprises have flourished, but they've always raised questions, especially about one of them, the Gingrich Group, a for-profit consulting firm. NPR's Peter Overby has our story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Gingrich Group doesn't do the shoe-leather lobbying that's covered by the federal lobby disclosure law, yet one of its big projects, the Center for Health Transformation, illustrates the kind of Washington activity that lies beyond the reach of that law, activities that can still look an awful lot like lobbying to outsiders. The center isn't a think tank, and it isn't a lobby shop. Defining just what it is isn't easy. Here's Gingrich talking last week to Sean Hannity of Fox News.

NEWT GINGRICH: So they want to say, well, isn't that lobbying? No. It's called being a citizen. As a citizen, I'm allowed to have an opinion.

OVERBY: And the center's CEO, Nancy Desmond, said this in an interview with NPR:

NANCY DESMOND: We have actually had people refer to us as more of a think-and-do tank because it's not about just thinking about things; it's actually doing them.

OVERBY: The Center for Health Transformation doesn't have clients, it has members - 93 members last year, accounting for about $6.9 million in annual dues. One charter member from 2003 is HealthTrio, a firm that provide systems for electronic medical records. Back in '03, Gingrich testified to a Senate committee about the need to move from paper records to digital systems. He singled out one visionary for praise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GINGRICH: The head of HealthTrio, which runs an electronic health record program for Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

OVERBY: In 2004, the center brought HealthTrio executives to Washington to meet with congressional leaders and with the secretary of Health and Human Services. The center also went to the Congressional Budget Office, saying that it should change its standards so that switching to electronic records would look better on agency budgets. HealthTrio and the center also took their case to state governments, and HealthTrio has the center educate prospective clients of its own. HealthTrio doesn't regard any of this as lobbying. Dave Syposs is a vice president of the firm.

DAVE SYPOSS VICE PRESIDENT, HEALTHTRIO: No, we looked for them as not a lobbying vehicle, but more of a educational and informational vehicle for us.

OVERBY: It wasn't even lobbying, he said, when the center arranged those visits with congressional leadership.

HEALTHTRIO: Our owner, Dr. Malik Hasan, has had, certainly, opportunities to meet with several of the senators and congressmen through his own personal introductions and through some of the members at the Center for Health Transformation.

OVERBY: And Desmond, the center's CEO, says Gingrich was always a valuable asset in meetings, but not because of his political clout.

DESMOND: Obviously, because Newt is such a well-known person and, you know, beyond that, he's so incredibly intelligent, it's helpful to have him as part of the discussion.

OVERBY: Among those who have puzzled over the Center for Health Transformation and just what kind of creature it is is political science scholar James Thurber at American University.

JAMES THURBER: If you're studying something and you come to conclusions and you advocate for a particular position, that's advocacy. That's lobbying.

OVERBY: But he says, ultimately, the center has simply been a vehicle for Gingrich.

THURBER: I think that it was a love of Newt to push for health care reform, and he used it to pursue that love or interest, but also used it to make a great deal of money.

OVERBY: Desmond says the Gingrich Group, including the Center for Health Transformation, grossed nearly $55 million over the past nine years. Gingrich's own financial disclosure statement filed this summer says that he stepped down as chairman of the Gingrich Group in May. His one continuing tie: He still serves on HealthTrio's advisory board.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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