Ex-Congressman’s Guilty Plea In Lobbying Case Shines Light On ‘The Family’

A secretive Religious Right group that works to influence members of Congress and other governmental leaders around the world is receiving more unwanted scrutiny.

The Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, has been implicated in the case against former congressman Mark Siljander, a Republican from Michigan who had ties to the organization.

In July, Siljander pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and operating as an unregistered foreign agent. He was accused of illegally lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of a charity based in Sudan that U.S. officials said was linked to a terrorist group.

The group in question, the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA), paid Siljander $50,000 to work on its behalf. Siljander, World magazine reported in August, used the Fellowship Foundation to transfer some of the funds.

In 2004, World reported, the IARA paid the Fellowship Foundation $25,000. Most of that money, $18,337, was later transferred to Siljander’s account. Siljander told the group he needed the money to support himself while he was writing a book.

The book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide, was published in 2008. In the tome, Siljander describes his efforts to reach out to Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. On at least one occasion in 1997, Siljander was accompanied to Sudan by Doug Coe, leader of the Fellowship Foundation. At the time, the United States had broken off diplomatic relations with Sudan, accusing the country of sponsoring terrorism.

In his book, Siljander writes, “Omar al-Bashir was, in the eyes of the West, a bad man. In the eyes of God, as near as I could understand it, he was just another human being, with frailties and failings like the rest of us.”

Officials at the Fellowship Foundation say they had no idea Siljander had received money from Sudan for lobbying. The group has not been accused of any wrong-doing.

“The money was supposed to be used for Mark Siljander to be supported for a year to write a book,” Eric Fellman, a Fellowship board member, told World. “Mark did write the book, and it got published.”

But U.S. government officials say Siljander was not forthcoming about the source of the funds. U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips said Siljander “repeatedly lied to FBI agents and prosecutors investigating serious crimes related to national security.”

The Fellowship, which is best known for sponsoring the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., came under scrutiny in the summer of 2009 over a boarding house it runs for members of Congress. The so-called “C Street house” became the focus of media attention after several current and former residents were involved in sex scandals. (See “Behind the Green Door,” September 2009 Church & State.)

Siljander served in Congress from 1981-86. He was known as an outspoken advocate of Religious Right causes and frequently promoted official prayer in public schools. He was defeated in a Republican primary in 1986 after sending out a controversial mailing asking supporters to “break the back of Satan” by praying for his reelection.

In 1994, Siljander joined the board of directors of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group. He no longer serves on the ADF board.