MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who's had to respond to criticism of his past that he was an unfaithful husband and a failed leader of his party. One label has been especially tough to shake that he was a lobbyist. While he didn't officially register as a lobbyist, Gingrich built a lucrative career advocating for paying clients. Gingrich insists that's not lobbying. And to prove his point, he released two of his consulting contracts this week.
NPR's Peter Overby took a look.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The two contracts disclosed this week come from Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant. Between 1999 and 2007, Freddie Mac paid his firm $1.6 million. The contracts say he was advising and discussing, not lobbying, at least not in the legal sense of the word. Here's Gingrich in Monday night's debate.
NEWT GINGRICH: There's no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I've never done any lobbying.
OVERBY: Gingrich deliberately avoided registering as a lobbyist, which would make public his clients and their payments to him.
GINGRICH: In fact, we brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff. And that expert is prepared to testify that he was brought in to say: Here is the bright line.
OVERBY: Thomas Susman is that expert, now the head lobbyist for the American Bar Association. He says his work for Gingrich is no secret.
THOMAS SUSMAN: He said that I could go public with my representation back when I first worked for him.
OVERBY: But Susman's version doesn't quite match Gingrich's. He says he advised Gingrich a little bit about federal lobbying law.
SUSMAN: Yeah. I'm sure I would have, because that was what my expertise and involvement had been.
OVERBY: But he says he can't remember actually doing so. And besides, that really wasn't Gingrich's focus.
SUSMAN: He was involved with a number of clients of his group at the state level and with state legislators and state officials. And that was where he was most concerned.
OVERBY: Gingrich is also defending his advocacy of the Medicare drug benefit known as Part D. Today, the campaign of rival Mitt Romney brought out a former Republican congressman. Jeb Bradley told reporters about a meeting with Gingrich back before the vote on Part D in 2003.
STATE SENATOR JEB BRADLEY: I'll tell you, that day that I met with Newt, he was lobbying.
OVERBY: Gingrich says he promoted Part D as a citizen, not a paid lobbyist. Here he is at the Monday night debate citing the need for better diabetes treatment.
GINGRICH: I publicly favored Medicare Part D for a practical reason. And that reason is simple: The U.S. government was not prepared to give people anything - insulin, for example - but they would pay for kidney dialysis.
OVERBY: But while Gingrich long supported the drug benefit, it's also true that Novo Nordisk, a company that specializes in diabetes treatment, was a $200,000-a-year member of his Center for Health Transformation. This stance of do no lobbying has defined Gingrich's post-Congress career. The assertion shows up on the website of the Center for Health Transformation and in one of the Freddie Mac contracts. But lobbyists rarely use the L-word in their contracts. Thomas Susman remembers the so-called engagement letters used by his old law firm.
SUSMAN: We'd use such terms as advocacy, you know, including advice and counsel, including organizing, but probably not use the word lobbying in it.
OVERBY: Susman is active in a push to make the lobbying industry more transparent. So is political scientist James Thurber, who heads up an institute on lobbying at American University. Thurber says there should be disclosure by so-called senior advisers - former lawmakers, like Gingrich, who don't formally register as lobbyists.
DR. JAMES THURBER: They don't have to be called lobbyists, but let's find out who they are.
OVERBY: And even some lobbyists want more transparency for their industry. An association called the American League of Lobbyists is working on a reform proposal. And the league's president, Howard Marlowe, says he wishes Gingrich wouldn't run away from the profession.
HOWARD MARLOWE: I mean, if he wants to be the first president who is a registered lobbyist, we'd love it.
OVERBY: But for now, Gingrich and other politicians seem pretty sure that a registered lobbyist is about the last candidate voters would want.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.