Saints Or Sinners?

Religious Right Lawyers Preach Morality, But Their Conduct Sometimes Falls Short

Religious Right legal organizations claim to be standing up for Christian values and the highest standards of ethics and morality. In fact, several of the groups’ leaders and associates seem to have often fallen short of those ideals.

TV preacher Pat Rob­ert­son’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), for example, has a complicated – and some say troubling – financial profile.

Legal Times reporter Tony Mauro has revealed that Jay Sekulow, who runs the ACLJ, has over the years amassed a personal fortune, earning an annual salary well over half a million dollars and maintaining three homes that were purchased for him by the non-profit legal outfit.

Sekulow is apparently aware that his dealings look suspicious and even tried to hide his salary from Legal Times. In an in-depth article in 2005, Mauro explained that Sekulow stated in one interview that his salary was $275,000 a year. But that figure, Mauro discovered, did not include compensation from an affiliated group Sekulow runs, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism.

With those funds included, Sekulow’s salary was far higher; Mauro concluded that his income exceeded $600,000 yearly.

There is a problem with this: Non-profit executives are not supposed to be grossly overpaid. Sekulow apparently got around that rule by arranging to work as an independent contractor, so that his salary does not have to appear on publicly reported financial disclosure forms.

The Robertson attorney has also spread the wealth among family members.

As Legal Times reported, “At various times in recent years, Sekulow’s wife, brother, sister-in-law, and two sons have been on the boards or payrolls of organizations under his control or have received generous payments as contractors. Sekulow’s brother Gary is the chief financial officer of both nonprofit organizations that fund his activities, a fact that detractors say diminishes accountability for his spending.”

The article went on to note, “Ac­cording to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, funds from his nonprofits have also been used to lease a private jet from companies under his family’s control.”

Some of Sekulow’s own associates were critical of his high-flying lifestyle.

One source told Mauro, “Some of us truly believed God told us to serve Jay, but not to help him live like Louis XIV. We are coming forward because we need to believe there is fairness in this world.”

Neither the ACLJ nor CASE is accredited by the Evangelical Council for Finan­cial Accountability (ECFA), an organization that attempts to bring some credibility and transparency to the notoriously free-wheeling world of evangelical Christian ministries.

ACLJ lawyers have also helped the leaders of a tax-exempt TV ministry live high on the hog. Last year, Colby May, senior counsel and director of the ACLJ’s Washington office, defended Trinity Broadcasting Network when the ministry was accused of using donations to fund an extravagant lifestyle for its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch.

Trinity is notorious for its constant fund-raising, its promotion of the controversial “prosperity gospel” and for the way the Crouches live.

The couple owns several luxurious homes and corporate jets. Their granddaughter, Brittany Koper, accused the duo of routinely charging fancy meals and vacations to the ministry as well as designating employees who had no religious duties as ministers to avoid paying taxes.

May told The New York Times that Koper and her husband had stolen money from Trinity and that they were highlighting the Crouches’ lifestyle “to divert attention from their own crimes.”

A scandal of a different type struck the ACLJ last fall when James Henderson, a longtime senior attorney at the group, was fired after reports came to light that he had been trolling the Web to meet young men.

Two bloggers reported that Henderson, who is married and has eight children, used a fake Facebook account to communicate with two young men, one of whom may have been underage. Henderson may have also provided the men with alcohol and marijuana.

Liberty Counsel also has been charged with dubious behavior. The org­anization’s founder and board chairman, Mat Staver, is known for less-than-Christian conduct. Political science professor Peter Irons, in his book God On Trial: Dispatches from America’s Religious Battlefields, wrote that Staver “has gained a reputation for abrasive behavior and below-the-belt tactics.”

Liberty Counsel has even been accused of being involved in a scandal of a different type: possibly aiding an international kidnapping.

The incident involves two Vermont women – Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins – who entered a legally binding civil union but split up in 2003. The two had a daughter together named Isabella, and Miller – who has joined a fundamentalist church – refused to allow Jenkins to visit the girl.

Miller moved to Virginia, where she continued to deny Jenkins access to the child. When a Vermont judge awarded Jenkins primary custody of Isabella, Miller took the girl and fled the country.

A Mennonite pastor named Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa Miller) admits he helped the two flee to Nicaragua. In August, he was found guilty of aiding in international parental kidnapping of a minor.

Liberty Counsel, which is based at Liberty University, had represented Lisa Miller in court. Victoria Hyden, a staff assistant at Liberty Law School, is the daughter of a Virginia businessman who owns a house in Nicaragua where Miller and her child have reportedly  stayed.

The New York Times reported that “Miller and Isabella stayed in a beach house in Nicaragua that is owned by a conservative businessman with close ties to Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., and whose daughter works at the university’s law school, according to the affidavit.”

Staver, dean of Liberty University Law School, insists he does not know what happened to Lisa Miller and told The Times that he always advised her to abide by the law. But Jenkins, who filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against Liberty Law School, Kenneth Miller and Thomas Road Baptist Church, says otherwise.

Staver also plays fast and loose with Liberty Counsel’s tax status. Most non-profit groups that raise money from the public are required to file financial disclosure reports. These “Form 990” reports are made publicly available through websites like Guidestar so that donors can see how their money is being spent.

Houses of worship are exempt from this requirement, so a few years ago, Liberty Counsel declared itself a church auxiliary and simply stopped making its financial operations public. Since then, basic information about the group, such as the size of its budget and the salaries paid to its top officials, is no longer available.

Needless to say, Liberty Counsel is not an ECFA-accredited organization. Ironically, however, Staver was invited to serve as an expert advisor last year when ECFA was studying accountability issues involving religious non-profits.

As these stories indicate, Religious Right legal groups, despite their constant moralizing, may not always have their own houses in perfect order.