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Ralph Reed's Hour of Need

Will Ralph Reed go down in history as the mastermind of a series of federal crimes designed to advance the fortunes of Republican politicians and crony consultants? While ongoing federal investigations and lawsuits signal this possibility, you would never know it from the press coverage Reed received when he stepped down recently as executive director of the Christian Coalition. There is both much more, and much less to the story than meets the eye.
 
 
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Will Ralph Reed go down in history as the mastermind of a series of federal crimes designed to advance the fortunes of republican politicians and crony consultants? While ongoing federal investigations and lawsuits signal this possibility, you would never know it from the press coverage Reed received when he stepped down recently as executive director of the Christian Coalition. There is both much more, and much less to the story than meets the eye.The transition comes at a time when the Coalition needs management more than a wunderkind. Already an old hand at a young age when Robertson hired him in 1989, Reed quickly led the Christian Coalition to the cutting-edge of political innovation and militancy. Over the last few years, however, Reed has established the organization as an inside-the-Beltway lobby for Republican legislation, modeled he says, on the National Education Association and the Chamber of Commerce. Even though its membership has been in decline and probably totals no more than 500,000 considerably less than the 1.9 million Reed claims -- the Coalition can continue Reed's formula of voter mobilization, voter guide distribution and lobbying without the media-created personality cult of Reed himself to keep it going.Reports of Reed's departure have been greatly exaggerated. He is actually being kicked upstairs to the small and powerful board of directors, where he joins founder Pat Robertson, and Robertson's son Gordon, among others. Reed who is still to be on the job until September, helped select not only his own, but Pat Robertson's successor as president. Replacing Reed as executive director is Randy Tate, 31, a former one-term Republican Member of Congress from Washington state best known for trying to legislate English as the official language of the U.S. Replacing Robertson as president is Don Hodel, 62, who served as secretary of the interior and secretary of energy under president Reagan, and will be charged with the organization's management and strategic direction. Robertson remains the maser of his domain as chairman of the board. Meanwhile, other groups are vying for the Coalition's mantle as articulator of the far-right agenda. The Promise Keepers men's movement is cresting as a cultural force; Christian theocrats D. James Kennedy and James Dobson -- who are further to the right than Reed and Robertson -- are emerging as significant political players; and the militant U.S. Taxpayers Party is siphoning off some of the Coalition's base in the GOP. Missed By The MediaA more compelling reason for Reed's resignation -- completely missed by the mainstream media -- may be his impending legal problems. Reed is now a central figure in a tangle of federal investigations and private lawsuits alleging financial chicanery during his tenure as executive director. Legal expenses are likely to eat up a hefty chunk of the big money he'll earn as a political consultant. In typical Beltway fashion, Reed will use his new business venture, Century Strategies, to raise Republican cash in his hour of need. If it worked for former U.S. Attorney General Webster Hubbell, it certainly ought to work for Reed. The extraordinary docket of cases involving Reed includes a Federal Election Commission (FEC) lawsuit alleging that Reed's organization engaged in partisan electoral activities -- including rigging "independent" voter guides and phone banking -- on behalf of and possibly in collaboration with Republican politicians, including George Bush, Jesse Helms, Oliver North and Newt Gingrich. The FEC charges that the money spent to help the Republicans amounted to millions of dollars worth of illegal corporate contributions. Pre-trial motions are currently before a U.S. District Court, and a trial date had note yet been set. The Coalition faces a similar private lawsuit filed by Democrats in New York state. The IRS for several years has been investigating Coalition's provisional 501(c)(4) non-profit tax status. So far, the IRS has neither granted nor taken it away, but depending on the investigation's findings, the Coalition may be forced to reorganize as a political action committee (PAC) and disclose its donors. While many non-profit groups are politically active, partisan electoral activities must be financed through PACs which are subject to federal reporting requirements and spending limits. The FEC also charges that the money spent to help the Republicans amounted to illegal corporate contributions.) Pre-trial motions are currently before the Court, and a trial date has not yet been set. The Coalition faces a similar private lawsuit filed by Democrats in New York state.White-Collar Crime Coalition?Perhaps Reed's most serious legal problem involves charges of good old fashioned white collar crime. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Norfolk, Virginia is investigating alleged contract irregularities and excessive billing by the consulting firm of Hart/Conover, which provided printing, mailing and fund-raising services to the Coalition for several years. Judy Liebert, the longtime chief financial officer of the Christian Coalition alerted Reed last year to possible improprieties on the part of Hart/Conover, including evidence of over-billing amounting to nearly $1 million. According to Liebert's attorney, Moody Stallings, she "was told to leave it alone," and "cut out of the loop." Unable to get a satisfactory response, and unwilling to be left holding the bag, Liebert took her concerns along with documentation to the U.S. Attorney in Norfolk. While federal prosecutors and the U.S. Postal Service launched parallel investigations, Liebert was barred from the Coalition's office in Chesapeake, VA, and ultimately fired. (Hart/Conover partner Be Hart, a close friend and golfing buddy of Reed, is best known as a founder of the right-wing Dartmouth Review.) Naturally, questions have been raised about what Reed knew and when he knew it.Underscoring the pattern of overt partisan political involvement as well as the Reed-Hart connection, the Associated Press recently reported that the Ralph Reed had rented the Coalition's list of 36,000 in Virginia to Universal Lists which paid $5,131. The company is controlled by Hart, and the list was used in support of the 1994 U.S. Senate campaign of Iran-Contra figure, Oliver North.However Stalling says unless the Christian Coalition makes a complaint about the alleged bilking -- which isn't likely -- or the Postal Service finds evidence of mail fraud, the authorities aren't likely to press charges. Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition has reportedly stopped doing business with the firm pending the outcome of the investigations. Whether criminal charges against Reed will arise from any of these investigations is a matter of speculation. However, it does seem likely that Reed will be deposed and compelled to testify under oath in court. Whatever the future holds for Reed and the vulnerable organization he helped create, his resignation announcement should be noted as one of the most clever national solicitations for business of any political consultant in recent political history.Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press. 1997. An earlier version of this story appeared in In These Times magazine.