September 1999 Church & State | Featured

Is Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn headed for prison?

If six U.S. senators have their way, he will be.

On July 2, Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) contacted Attorney General Janet Reno, seeking a criminal investigation of Americans United for allegedly trying to "intimidate" religious voters from going to the polls.

The correspondence, sent on Helms' Senate letterhead, suggests that Americans United, through the group's educational efforts, may have "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process."

The letter charges, "Considering the well-orchestrated past efforts of Americans United to target pastors and other religious leaders to receive an 'urgent message' regarding voter information -- in reality, a subterfuge for a threatened IRS review of their tax-exempt status -- we urge that you open an inquiry to determine whether this group has violated either the spirit or letter of federal law."

The senators pointed to 18 USC Section 594, a civil rights statute that penalizes anyone who attempts to "intimidate, threaten or coerce...any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote." Penalties for this offense can include fines and jail time.

AU's Lynn was furious about the charges. On July 19 he demanded a prompt apology and retraction from the senators for what he described as an "outrageous and wholly baseless action."

"The senators' accusation is a bald-faced lie," Lynn said. "They have, without shame or evidence, tried to enlist the top law enforcement official in our nation in a crackdown on a private organization that has done nothing wrong. The conduct of these senators in this matter has been nothing short of reckless and irresponsible."

Lynn noted that neither Helms, nor any of the other five senators who requested the criminal investigation, ever contacted Americans United for information about the group's activities. In fact, even after writing to Reno, the senators never bothered to notify AU of their action.

Had you or a member of your staff simply contacted our organization before calling for a federal investigation, we would have been more than pleased to explain the baseless nature of any accusations you may have heard," Lynn wrote. "It is nothing short of irresponsible for members of the Senate to ask the attorney general to conduct a criminal investigation of a private, non-profit organization before these members get their facts straight." 

Lynn added that the senators did not cite any actual instances of Americans United attempting to intimidate anyone, nor did they cite any evidence that the group had ever interfered with anyone's right to vote.

"Helms and the other senators couldn't point to a shred of evidence to support their claim because there isn't any evidence," Lynn said.

While the criminal accusation was alarming for Americans United, the apparent source of the provocation was equally troubling.

In Lynn's letter to the senators, a copy of which was forwarded to the attention of the attorney general, AU's executive director explained his disgust for what he believes is an example of Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson pulling the senators' strings.

"As disappointing as it was to uncover the senators' request to the attorney general," Lynn wrote, "it is perhaps just as troubling to recognize that a television preacher can wield such enormous and disproportionate influence over members of Congress.

"Americans United is being singled out for attack for a simple reason -- because we have the nerve to stand up to Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition," Lynn said. "It is clear to us that the senators' request for an investigation is politically motivated, and Helms, Robertson and their allies are hoping to intimidate us from telling churches the truth about the law. This is politics at its worst."

Lynn believes that Americans United, which has been a source of frustration for Robertson and the Christian Coalition for years, became a more serious problem after the IRS denied the Coalition tax-exempt status on June 10.

In fact, many observers believe that it was the abundant evidence given to the IRS by Americans United that ultimately helped prove that the Coalition was unworthy of a tax exemption. Particularly relevant was a secretly-recorded Robertson speech boasting of the group's Republican election successes and urging his top lieutenants to build a Tammany Hall-style political machine based in churches.

Just one week after the IRS decision against the Coalition, Robertson traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with the Republican Senate leadership. The Coalition issued a press release boasting of Robertson's congressional audience and explaining that he discussed ways to "re-energize" grassroots voters on behalf of GOP candidates.

While accounts of Robertson's meetings with the Senate leadership differ, Laura Cox, a spokeswoman for Coverdell, told the Religion News Service that AU came up when Coverdell met with Robertson June 17.

"I think that Americans United and the claims that they have made were brought up at the meeting," Cox said (She later changed her mind and told a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service that Americans United did not come up during Coverdell's meeting with Robertson. She said the letter to Reno was Helms' idea).

The day after Robertson's meetings in the Senate, the TV preacher, apparently forgetting that his Coalition claims to be non-partisan, announced in an Associated Press interview, "If the Christian Coalition isn't in the game, the Republicans are going to lose" in the 2000 elections. In the same interview, Robertson said he asked the GOP leadership to look into discriminatory treatment by the IRS.

Just two weeks after Robertson's meeting on Capitol Hill, the six Senate allies of Robertson--including three of the five members of the senate GOP leadership--wrote their letter to Reno urging an investigation of Americans United.

These circumstances, coupled with the fact that Helms and his allies twice noted their support for the Coalition's activities in the letter to Reno, led many to believe that Robertson was responsible for the action against AU.

 There is simply no other reasonable explanation," Lynn said. "Why else would these members of the Senate bother to go after Americans United?"

Even the circumstances surrounding Lynn obtaining the letter point toward Robertson's involvement.

The TV preacher appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" July 9. In response to a question about the Christian Coalition being denied a tax exemption, Robertson told King he knew of "one particular senator" who was following up on the Coalition's troubles with the IRS.

A reporter who saw the interview called the Coalition to inquire which senator was acting on Robertson's behalf. A Coalition staffer told him to check with Coverdell for additional information.

The Georgia Republican's office then faxed a copy of the six senators' letter about Americans United to the reporter, adding support to the notion that Coverdell was attacking AU at Robertson's behest.

Asked by the Daily Tax Report whether Robertson and the Coalition urged the senators to seek an investigation, Coalition spokesman Christopher Freund said, "We're not answering that right now."

Instead, the Christian Coalition issued a press release expressing its glee. The statement said, "[Americans United] has engaged in a blatant campaign of intimidating not only pastors but individual voters who choose to be active in the political process....[W]e applaud Senate leadership for its acknowledgment that religious and social conservatives have every right to participate in the process we call democracy." (The Coalition's release, like the senators' letter to Reno, made no reference to any examples of intimidation.)

The event that appears to have triggered the controversy was a church-based voter registration drive the Christian Coalition initiated on July 4 as part of the group's "21 Victory" project leading up to the 2000 elections.

The Coalition has suggested that Americans United attempted to interfere with the drive, and CC Senior Vice President Randy Tate even said on CNN's "Crossfire" Aug. 5 that Lynn had sent letters to pastors, encouraging them not to participate. However, Lynn says neither of these charges is true.

As a matter of fact, Lynn said Americans United issued a July 1 press release encouraging civic participation. In the release, Lynn said, "There's certainly nothing wrong with churches encouraging their members to register and vote. Every American should do so. But churches should be extremely wary of Robertson, who has made his partisanship clear."

Lynn felt this language described AU's unambiguous intentions. "Far from being criminal activity, this was sound advice to houses of worship that wish to act within the law," he said. "We have urged religious leaders to exercise great caution involving potential intervention in partisan political campaigns and encouraged them to get advice from their own legal counsel in regard to their own situations."

An article about the Coalition's voter registration drive appeared in the June 24 Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor. In fact, Helms and the other senators included a copy of the article in their complaint to Reno.

"We are concerned by the enclosed Congressional Quarterly report suggesting that Americans United for Separation of Church and State may interfere with the Coalition's lawful activities...," the senators' letter said.

But a review of the article offered no hint of wrongdoing. Lynn was asked about the IRS's denial of the Coalition's tax exemption and how this might effect the planned voter registration effort. The CQ Daily Monitor quoted Lynn as saying, "Because of the tax decision, churches will be reluctant to open their doors to the Christian Coalition." The article added that AU may, at some point in the future, send additional letters to churches about abiding by federal tax law.

Lynn said the article's content was far from "proof" of any attempt to intimidate religious voters.

"On the basis of a single non-controversial quote and Americans United's history of educational efforts about churches and politics, Jesse Helms and his allies have apparently extrapolated that my organization may be guilty of a serious federal crime," Lynn said. "This is patently absurd."

At this point, it is not clear how the Justice Department will act on the senators' request. John Russell, a spokesman for the agency, told reporters that the complaint has been received and is under consideration.

"It's being reviewed by the public integrity section of the criminal division, which investigates voter fraud, and we will respond in time," Russell said.

"If the Justice Department does decide to investigate us, it will be very easy to clear our name," Lynn said. "All our organization has done is provide information to churches about what the law says about churches and politics. We've let religious leaders know that if they ignore the tax law, they may be punished by the IRS. I didn't write the Tax Code, but I have every right to inform people what it says and to urge them to be prudent."

It is not surprising to many political observers that Helms would spearhead an effort to punish Robertson's most aggressive critic. Many believe Helms is still in the Senate today due to assistance from Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

In 1991 at the Coalition's Road-to-Victory Conference, then-executive director Ralph Reed boasted of the group's key role in re-electing Helms, saying Coalition leaders decided to act after they discovered Helms was down by eight points in the polls. "Bottom line is...five days later we put three-quarters of a million voter's guides in churches across the state of North Carolina and Jesse Helms was re-elected by 100,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast," Reed said.

Robertson himself echoed identical sentiments in his 1991 book, The New World Order. The TV preacher highlighted the Helms victory as an example of the "effectiveness" of voter guide distribution.

It is particularly ironic that Helms would be involved in accusing anyone of illegally intimidating voters in light of the ballot box bullying in his own past.

In the 1990 Senate race, the North Carolina Republican Party, working on behalf of Helms, instituted a "ballot security" project that sent 150,000 postcards to heavily African-American precincts, warning prospective voters that they faced "fines and jail terms" if they cast ballots at the wrong location.

The cards were sent to communities labeled as "high performance" for Democrats, meaning areas where turnout on behalf of Democratic candidates was highest. The chairman of the North Carolina GOP later acknowledged that most of the postcards were sent to voters who had recently moved.

"Jesse Helms knows all about intimidation of voters," Lynn observed. "Unfortunately he appears to have confused our activities with his own."

With the abundant evidence that Helms was acting at Robertson's behest, the attack on AU is being perceived by many as a desperate attempt on the part of the Christian Coalition to retaliate against the watchdog group that has caused so many difficulties for Robertson's political organization.

"We've caused so much frustration and embarrassment for Robertson and the Coalition, it's beginning to take its toll," Lynn said. "Churches are rejecting the Coalition's campaign materials, long-time staff members are leaving the group in a hurry and the public has developed a healthy skepticism of the Coalition and its leaders. I think we've got them on the ropes."

Robertson, it appears, will not go down without lashing out wildly. On the July 14 episode of his nationally televised "700 Club" program, he claimed that AU's Lynn opposes sending fire engines to burning churches because of the separation of church and state.

A week earlier, Robertson said Americans United may be indirectly responsible for mass murderers such as neo-Nazi Benjamin Nathaniel Smith.

Observed Robertson, "[Americans United's] total goal is to eliminate Christianity and eliminate religion from the public square, take all vestiges of supernatural religion out of our state and make us a totally secular group. If we take the knowledge of the true God and the restraint of the Holy Spirit from society, we will have this kind of violence."

These false outbursts against AU may indicate the Christian Coalition is in even deeper trouble than many have thought. In an eye-popping front-page article Aug. 2 in The New York Times, reporter Laurie Goodstein thoroughly analyzed the Coalition's internal difficulties.

Whereas the group claimed 48 strong state affiliates as recently as last year, staffers now say that number is no more than seven. To appear busy, the Coalition has sometimes hired temporary workers when television crews visited.

Even more alarming for the group, former staffers acknowledged that the Coalition never distributed the number of voter guides publicly claimed. In 1998 the group claimed to distribute 40 million voter guides.

Said former CC field director Dave Welch, "We never distributed 40 million guides. State affiliates took stacks of them to recycling centers after the election. A lot of churches just put a pile of them on the back table. I never considered effective distribution anything short of inserting them into church bulletins, but in very few churches did that actually happen."

The falsehoods did not end there. Former national leaders also admitted in the article that the Coalition has consistently deceived the public about the group's size. While the Christian Coalition currently claims its membership is between 1.8 and 2 million, staffers told Goodstein that number is inflated by including "thousands of names of dead people and wrong addresses." The total also includes "many one-time contributors and people who once signed a petition or called an 800 number."

Making matters worse, the article went on to note that the Coalition is also burdened with a $2.5 million debt.

All of these difficulties only compound the Christian Coalition's problems with the IRS, a subject staffers can't seem to explain with any consistency.

Coalition spokesman Mike Russell appeared on the Fox News Channel in August and claimed that the Coalition had not been denied its tax-exempt status. He insisted that the group had "withdrawn" its application after 10 years of waiting.

That appeared to be entirely inconsistent with a July 6 fundraising letter Coalition members received from Randy Tate, who was recently demoted from executive director to senior vice president of government affairs. In a note of near desperation, Tate said the opposite of what Russell had explained, insisting that the IRS "has refused to approve our tax-exempt status."

Observers believe the Christian Coalition may be down, but it isn't out yet.

AU's Lynn concluded, "The coming months may be make or break for the Coalition. Regardless of its difficulties, the group still has tens of millions of dollars and politicians seeking the Coalition's support.

"After all," he continued, "if Pat Robertson still has the power and influence to get six U.S. Senators to call for a criminal investigation of Americans United without any proof, then it's too early to write the Christian Coalition's epitaph.

"All this will just make us work harder than ever."