Liberty University ran television ads featuring Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich just days before the Iowa caucuses, a move widely interpreted as an effort to boost his candidacy.
The ads showed Gingrich extolling the virtues of Liberty University. They began airing immediately before the state’s Jan. 3 presidential caucuses.
Gingrich’s rollercoaster campaign has been short on cash. The Caucus Blog of The New York Times reported that with funds running low, Gingrich’s “well-financed allies are coming to his rescue in Iowa, securing large chunks of airtime across the state.”
The newspaper noted that the video does not explicitly endorse Gingrich as the Republican nominee, but The Times questioned whether the non-profit tax-exempt school’s intervention violates federal tax law, which prohibits campaign activities on behalf of any candidate.
Liberty University officials denied any political intent. The school issued a statement saying the ad “was filmed October 27, 2010 and has been running since that time in various markets. Liberty University has a rotation of ads in its national advertising campaign and it adjusts the mix from time to time.”
According to Liberty officials, it was just a coincidence that the Gingrich ads began airing in Iowa right before the caucuses.
Liberty Law School Dean Mat Staver told the Lynchburg News & Advance that “of course, the university does not endorse candidates.”
Staver said, “The ad is not designed to endorse Newt or anyone else.…We’re not speaking about his positions. We’re not comparing him to another candidate. We’re not promoting his election.”
But Gingrich has been a favorite of the Liberty crowd for some time. In October of 2010, Gingrich traveled to Lynchburg and met with Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and other Religious Right leaders. Falwell later lauded the former House speaker, saying he would make a “wonderful president” and describing him as “exactly what the nation needs at this point in history.”
According to the News & Advance, the commercial featured Gingrich praising Liberty as “one of the preeminent forums to discuss profound issues.”
Gingrich says, “It’s the kind of school where somebody who cares about America’s future can learn all the key principles of law, both for their own personal life and their own personal profession, but also as a citizen to be more effective in helping their country.”
In the ad, images of Gingrich at the school flash across the screen, including one of him shaking hands with Falwell in 2007 when the former House speaker delivered Liberty’s commencement address.
Americans United noted that Falwell has a history of using Liberty for political purposes. In December of 2007, he issued an e-mail bulletin on university letterhead endorsing Mike Huckabee for president. In December of 2010, university officials used the student newspaper and other publications to promote a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Both incidents led Americans United to file complaints with the Internal Revenue Service.
Americans United Director of Communications Joe Conn blasted the latest Falwell maneuver.
“It’s clear this was an attempt to support Gingrich and get people to vote for him.… Chancellor Falwell is playing fast and loose with federal tax law,” Conn told the News & Advance.
The younger Falwell appears to be following in his father’s footsteps. The late Jerry Falwell Sr.’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry also agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 for those years.