Remembering The Time Jeff Sessions Accused Americans United Of Voter Intimidation

When I heard that President-elect Donald Trump on Friday had nominated U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general, I immediately remembered something that happened in 1999.

Since Friday, we’ve all been reminded of Sessions’ record, including an infamous – and unsuccessful – attempt to prosecute voting rights activists for voter fraud. Some viewed this incident as an attempt to dissuade African-Americans from voting in Alabama.

That wasn’t the only time Sessions tried to misuse voting laws. In 1999, Sessions called for the criminal prosecution of Americans United for voter intimidation.

No, I’m not exaggerating. As the head of AU, I would have taken the fall for that. Penalties include fines and one year in prison.

Jeff Sessions wanted to send me to one of these in 1999.

In July of 1999, Sessions joined forces with five other Republican senators – Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina – to file a formal complaint against Americans United with the U.S. Justice Department. The complaint charged that AU violated a federal statute that forbids voter intimidation because we educated tax-exempt houses of worship that the IRS prohibits them from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Now, of course, Americans United was not intimidating voters in any way, shape or form. All we did was send letters to houses of worship nationwide reminding faith leaders that it’s a violation of federal law for tax-exempt, non-profit entities to intervene in political races by endorsing or opposing candidates. (We’ve sent similar letters during election years since then, including the recently concluded election.)

The letters were part of AU’s Project Fair Play, which seeks to educate religious leaders and laypeople about this law and why it’s important to follow it. Far from breaking the law, we were urging people to obey it. (Last time I checked, this sort of education was protected by the First Amendment.)

Interestingly, Sessions and other senators wrote to Janet Reno, then attorney general, just days after Helms and other GOP senators met with TV preacher Pat Robertson to plot political strategy for the 2000 election. I’ve always believed that Robertson urged the senators to go after Americans United during that meeting.  

They admitted as much. Shortly after the senators sent the letter to Reno, a staffer in Coverdell's office told a reporter with Religion News Service that Americans United had been discussed during the June 1999 meeting between Robertson and top GOP officials. (She later claimed to have been mistaken.)

Robertson’s Christian Coalition, at the time the most powerful Religious Right group in the nation, was very pleased with the senators’ letter. On July 19, 1999, the group issued a press release that said, “The organization calling itself Americans United for Separation of Church and State has engaged in a blatant campaign of intimidating not only pastors but individual voters who choose to be active in the political process. We applaud any effort that seeks to open the door for citizen par­ticipation in our electoral process.”

Despite all of that bluster, the gambit by Helms, Sessions and the others failed utterly. In February of 2000, I received a letter from Deputy Assistant Attorney General John C. Keeney informing me that the complaint was deemed not worthy of a criminal investigation.

Keeney rightly observed, “[T]he two criminal statutes that were potentially involved ... reach only threats of physical or economic harm that are communicated to voters to stimulate or deter them from registering to vote or voting in federal elections,”

AU hadn’t done anything like that, so, Keeney concluded, “[W]e declined to initiate a criminal investigation of the matter about which the Senators had complained.”

Although nothing came of the complaint, the incident is a sobering reminder of how Sessions sought to misuse the law to harass and intimidate by calling on the attorney general to investigate what were clearly spurious charges.

Now that Sessions has been tapped to serve as attorney general, he’ll likely be the one to decide whether bogus charges should be prosecuted.