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Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens to a question during a news conference on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nev.

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich says his consulting group never lobbied for clients. But his business hired state and federal lobbyists to work with clients, and some staff left to take lobbying jobs, according to lobbying disclosures and corporate reports.

Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation hired a former Georgia lobbyist to help develop business in that state; a former Missouri state agency director who was a registered lobbyist before joining Gingrich's group; and a Washington lobbyist hired from a firm led by former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a Gingrich supporter.

Gingrich's center also paved the way for some employees to leave for lobbying jobs, turning their experience with his group into a selling point for clients. One former vice president started his own Washington lobbying firm, attracting clients also represented by Gingrich's organization. Two other center employees left to manage Washington lobbying operations for trade associations.

Gingrich's consulting business has been the focus of claims by Republican rival Mitt Romney, who paints the former House speaker as a Washington insider who peddled the influence he acquired in Congress to hundreds of corporate clients after he left the House in 1999. Gingrich stressed that he was not lobbying when he created his business and rented space along Washington's K Street corridor known for its high-dollar lobbying firms. And he's criticized Romney in the campaign for characterizing him as a lobbyist.

The center's website notes "we do no lobbying for clients" and says the staff hired constitutes "a team of experts in strategic thinking, policy, planning, research, coalition building, training, writing, communications and analysis."

Avoiding the label of Washington lobbyist is a common practice, made even more popular after President Barack Obama vowed to distance his administration from them. The result was a drop in the number of actual registered lobbyists. In Washington, the legal definition of a lobbyist requires certain narrow criteria to be met, including being paid by a client to spend at least 20 percent of the time attempting to influence "the formulation, modification or adoption of federal legislation." But that leaves out a lot of activity that would fall under a common-sense description of "lobbyist."

Gingrich last year cut ties to his Center for Health Transformation and the Gingrich Group, although he's still owed between $5 million and $25 million for his share of the business, his financial disclosures show. His group created the center in 2003 to focus on health-related initiatives like improved health care technology, Medicare changes and Obama's health care overhaul. The center won't identify its clients, citing confidentiality concerns. The Gingrich Group and the center have acknowledged generating $55 million between 2001 and 2010, serving more than 300 companies and organizations, including $1.65 million from the government-supported mortgage company Freddie Mac.

The Associated Press has identified more than 200 companies and associations that paid Gingrich's group about $42 million since 2003, according to lists of clients and client fees the group posted in the past on its website.

Two dozen of the nation's largest health care companies and businesses with major health-related costs paid Gingrich's group nearly $21 million during the period, or almost half of the $42 million in client fees identified by the AP. They included pharmaceutical companies like Novo Nordisk, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline; insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Health Group and WellPoint Inc.; hospital networks like Sutter Health and Cancer Treatment Centers of America; medical equipment manufacturers like GE Healthcare and Siemens; health benefit manager MedImpact; and other businesses like Gallup Organization, UPS, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

Six of the major health care companies and Booz Allen Hamilton, a large Washington government contracting and consulting firm, paid more than $1 million each to Gingrich's group since 2003. Seventeen others paid more than $500,000 each over the period, according to their membership levels identified by the center and the center's listed annual membership costs. Most of the 24 companies paid the top annual fee of $200,000, which provided the most access to Gingrich through private telephone conference calls, personal appearances, and regular updates and opinions that he offered members on national health issues and legislation.

Gingrich's 2010 tax return shows he earned $2.4 million of his total $3.1 million in income from his various businesses, but he's declined to show how much of that income came from clients at the Center for Health Transformation and the Gingrich Group.

Gingrich was the major draw for businesses paying his center. The Missouri Hospital Association paid $20,000 in 2007, but the money wasn't for a particular project or purpose, said David Dillon, an association vice president. "When you have the Center for Health Transformation in the biggest city in your state, you want to be engaged," he said.

The Indiana Health Care Association paid $70,000 in 2008 to become a client of Gingrich's group, which offered regular newsletters, website access, position papers and staff contacts.

"The only benefit that we were aware of is that we were able to have Mr. Gingrich as a speaker at our convention," said Kate Vaulter, an association spokeswoman.

Booz Allen Hamilton paid Gingrich's center to help sponsor health-related events, where Booz Allen consultants spoke and offered position papers on issues, spokesman James Fisher said.

Gingrich didn't work alone. He hired others, including lobbyists, to help serve the clients and develop state projects that Gingrich would later promote as model programs.

Robert Egge worked as a Washington lobbyist for J.C. Watts Companies, focusing on Medicare in 2005 before joining Gingrich's firm as a project director in March of that year. At the center, Egge "worked extensively with the Congress, executive branch and state governments on key policy initiatives related to Alzheimer's disease, as well as cancer, diabetes and long-term care," according to a bio produced after he joined the Alzheimer's Association, where he now works as vice president in the Washington public affairs office. The association became a client of Gingrich's group in 2010.

Wayne Oliver left his chief lobbyist job in 2006 with the Georgia Pharmacy Association, where he worked for 19 years, to join Gingrich's group. He's a vice president at the center now working on pharmacy issues and promoting changes at the Food and Drug Administration. But he also has worked on the center's Georgia Project, one of the state-based initiatives Gingrich's organization started to promote health care improvements and increased technology.

Julie Eckstein led Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services, a cabinet position that required her to register as a state lobbyist before she joined Gingrich's group in 2007. She worked as a vice president at the Center for Health Transformation, overseeing state projects, including an office in Missouri that she helped create. She left last year to become managing director of health care services at St. Louis-based Guidon Peformance Solutions, another Gingrich group client.

Jim Frogue turned nearly six years working at Gingrich's firm into a new Washington lobbying business. Frogue, who served as a congressional legislative director for two House members before going to work with Gingrich, left the firm in late 2010 to start his own lobbying business, FrogueClark. His Washington office is in the same K Street building as the Center for Health Transformation. Some of Frogue's first lobbying clients were health care reimbursement company Qmedtrix Systems and pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, who also were clients of Gingrich's group.

Frogue said he wasn't aware of anyone who lobbied before or during their time at Gingrich's center. "As far as I know, nobody was lobbying," Frogue said in a telephone interview while campaigning for Gingrich last week. He joined a number of other Washington lobbyists in December for a $1,000-a-person fundraiser for Gingrich's campaign.

Jill Randolph left her job with Gingrich's group in 2007 to run Washington lobbying efforts for the American Benefits Council and to manage the political action committee for the trade association representing employee benefit programs. Randolph, a project director at Gingrich's firm, was hired by the American Benefits Council to "draw upon her extensive legislative experience," according to the 2007 news release announcing her hiring.

Associated Press writer Ray Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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