Investigating AU

Sen. Helms' Unfair Witch Hunt Project

When a member of the United States Senate wants the Justice Department to investigate you, there are apparently two things he doesn't need to provide: persuasive evidence that you have done something wrong and notification to you.

I was more than a bit surprised a few weeks ago when I learned of a letter sent by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and five of his colleagues calling on Attorney General Janet Reno to launch a criminal investigation of Americans United for possibly violating a federal statute prohibiting intimidation of people seeking to exercise their right to vote.

I came to know about this only because a reporter called to ask about it. Someone in Sen. Paul Coverdell's office had faxed him--probably by accident--a copy of the Helms letter.

We put two and two together and came up with the likely scenario that Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson, after a meeting in June with the Senate leadership, had prodded several senators to take action against the group he hates the most, the group that he blames in large part for the denial of his much-sought Coalition tax exemption. That group is Americans United.

How could these senators possibly justify asking for a criminal probe of Americans United? They claim AU is trying to "intimidate" religious voters because of two things: Number one, I told Congressional Quarterly that churches are unlikely to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides because of the Coalition's well-established partisan reputation. And number two, because we have sent memos to churches advising them that handing out biased voter guides could get them in trouble with the IRS. That's it.

Normally, government agencies begin investigations after they have evidence of "probable cause" of a crime or at least "reasonable suspicion" that one has been committed. It's hard to believe that six senators would become convinced of a need for this type of probe on the basis of this flimsy "evidence"--unless they had been persuaded to do it by a little bird (or a major campaign contributor).

The evidence against AU may be non-existent, but the Department of Justice told reporters that an investigation had been started by the Public Integrity section of the Criminal Division.

During a recent appearance on CNN's "Crossfire," I was asked about this matter by cohost Robert Novak. I called the Helms missive what it is: a witch hunt. We chose to release the letter, along with our evidence of Robertson's involvement and a demand for apologies from all six senators, chiefly because we felt wronged. We also wanted to demonstrate how simple it is for real intimidation to come from powerful government officials--undeterred by such mundane matters as the truth--when they are motivated by sycophantic desires to keep good relations with powerful supporters.

The irony does not escape me that it is the Christian Coalition that has played fast and loose with the tax and election laws for years, while AU does only genuinely non-partisan public education. Curiously, one sentence in the senators' letter is particularly chilling: They want Janet Reno to look into whether "injunctions" against Americans United might be appropriate (along with the fines and prison time provided in the statute they claim we violated).

Injunctions are court orders to stop us from doing things in the future, presumably publishing Church & State articles, posting material on the Internet and sending out legal memoranda to religious groups telling them what they can and cannot do in the realm of voter education. This is very serious stuff.

Many reporters have recently asked me why Pat Robertson has such an interest in stopping AU. That's simple: He knows Americans United is effective. We have blown the whistle on his political shenanigans, his efforts to raid the public treasury and his blistering insults about people whose religion differs from his own.

As of this writing we have not heard from the Justice Department. I'm not plagued by thoughts of spending my days wearing an orange jumpsuit in a federal prison, nor has AU stopped any of its work in this area. Last month we commissioned a Washington law firm to produce an authoritative legal memo to refute false statements Robertson made about the significance of his partial victory in the lawsuit brought against the Coalition by the Federal Election Commission.

We also prepared a transcript of Robertson's reckless comments on the "700 Club" urging that the U.S. government adopt assassination of disagreeable heads of state as a tenet of our foreign policy. We disseminated it to news outlets around the world (along with my suggestion he might want to post the Ten Commandments in his office).

And oh yes, there was one more thing: AU's litigation counsel, Ayesha Khan, just won a court case that prevented Robertson from getting $55 million dollars worth of government-issued bonds to finance new construction at his Regent University.

And we thought he was mad at us before!

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.