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Gingrich defends big contracts with Freddie Mac

URBANDALE, Iowa – Rising in polls and receiving greater scrutiny, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich found himself on the defensive Wednesday over huge payments he received over the past decade from the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Gingrich, who now is near the top in polling on the GOP race, said he didn’t remember exactly how much he was paid, but a person familiar with the hiring said it was at least $1.6 million for consulting contracts stretching from 1999 to early 2008. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to address a personnel matter.

Long unpopular among Republicans, federally backed Freddie Mac and its larger sister institution, Fannie Mae, have become targets for criticism stemming from the housing crisis that helped drive the nation deep into recession and then hampered recovery. Gingrich himself criticized Barack Obama in 2008 for accepting contributions from executives of the two companies.

Speaking with reporters in Iowa on Wednesday, Gingrich said he provided “strategic advice for a long period of time” after he resigned as House speaker following his party’s losses in the 1998 elections. He defended Freddie Mac’s role in housing finance and said, “Every American should be interested in expanding housing opportunities.”

On Tuesday, a House committee voted to strip top executives of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae of huge salaries and bonuses and to put them on the same pay scale as federal employees. After disastrous losses, both companies were taken over by the government in 2008, and since then a federal regulator has controlled their financial decisions.