AP finds Blackwell, 2 pastors met more than complaint says

The IRS wants to know if churches violated federal law by engaging in politics.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has met with two conservative pastors more often than alleged in an IRS complaint accusing the pastors of improper support of his campaign for governor, according to a review of documents by The Associated Press.
Although the complaint looked at nine publicly reported events sponsored by the pastors, a review of Blackwell's daily schedule found 19 other meetings or other contact with the pastors, including flights on a church-owned plane, meetings in Blackwell's office and attendance at church services.
Blackwell, a Republican and favorite of conservatives, had contact with pastors Russell Johnson and Rod Parsley or their churches 28 times from January 2004 through March of this year, according to AP research, including a review of Blackwell's confidential schedule obtained through a public records request.
That's more than a third of the total number of events with a religious theme listed on Blackwell's schedule and represents the largest number of contacts with specific pastors.
At issue in the complaint is the context of the contacts. Blackwell says he was involved either as secretary of state or as an elected leader supporting a cause -- in many cases a 2004 ban on gay marriage.
Liberal ministers critical of the Rev. Mr. Johnson and the Rev. Mr. Parsley question how the pastors can separate their ties to Blackwell from his campaign for governor.
All eyes on race
Ohio's race for governor is being watched by Republicans and Democrats nationally because of the state's bellwether status. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which gave President Bush the White House in 2004, and only two Democrats have won without it in the past 100 years.
Blackwell said none of his meetings with Mr. Parsley or Mr. Johnson or any of the dozens of other ministers or churches he visits regularly have anything to do with partisan politics. Blackwell again appeared at an event sponsored by Johnson at a church in suburban Grove City on Thursday.
"Anybody that would peg the IRS complaint to the frequency in which I meet with any pastor would in fact be misinterpreting the code," he said. "The code does not prohibit or restrict interaction to any specific number. It talks about protecting against engaging in partisan politics."
Blackwell's GOP rival for governor, Attorney General Jim Petro, declined to comment, except to say he occasionally meets with ministers but not with Mr. Parsley or Mr. Johnson. Former candidate Betty Montgomery, the state auditor, also meets with ministers but has not met not with Mr. Parsley or Mr. Johnson.
The schedule obtained by the AP from Blackwell's office ends in September, when the official calendar was transferred to Blackwell's political campaign.
Most blacked out
Asked for the public portion of Blackwell's schedule from September through March, the campaign provided 158 pages with most events blacked out as campaign-related and hence not a public record.
Blackwell said no documents held by his campaign are covered under open records law, including calendar items that reflect events -- such as appearances with the pastors -- that he made as secretary of state.
Blackwell has been raising money for his governor's campaign since at least 2004 but said years earlier that he planned to run.
He has never made a secret of the fact he is a conservative Christian who integrates his faith into his public and private life as often as possible. However, the records show the campaign is sensitive to the issue.
"Public schools will be in attendence, so be careful of the way Christianity is included speech," according to a scheduling note for an Oct. 7 event in Cincinnati.
Mr. Johnson is chairman of the Ohio Restoration Project, a group of religious conservatives that helped spearhead the gay marriage ban.
He said the meetings reflect his church's association with Blackwell dating to before his run for governor and including Blackwell's support of the gay marriage ban.
"I have never in a public gathering said, 'Vote for Ken Blackwell,'" Mr. Johnson said. "I have affirmed his strong stands for life, marriage, and candidly, low taxes."
Mr. Parsley is chairman of Reformation Ohio, a similar group whose goal is to convert 1 million people to Christianity, help the poor and register 400,000 new voters.
Mr. Parsley declined an interview request, but the church said in a statement he has met with Blackwell only in his capacity as secretary of state to discuss voter registration or Blackwell's support of traditional marriage.
What complaint alleges
The IRS complaint filed in January alleges Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parsley and their churches have improperly promoted Blackwell's gubernatorial campaign over other candidates by featuring him at large rallies.
The complaint asks that the IRS investigate whether the pastors violated federal law prohibiting churches from engaging in political activity and endorsing candidates for political office.
Overall, Blackwell's schedule documents 75 meetings of a religious nature, including visits to churches, meetings with pastors and Christian business groups, speeches to church groups and attendance at prayer breakfasts and Christian men's groups.
His contacts with Mr. Johnson include meetings like the one on Dec. 9, 2004, in his Columbus office at 1 p.m., when Johnson introduced him to David Limbaugh, a conservative commentator and brother of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, according to the secretary of state's schedule.
Later that day Blackwell spoke at a fund raiser for Johnson's Fairfield Christian Academy.
Blackwell's meetings with Mr. Parsley include three flights to anti-gay marriage events in 2004 aboard the seven-passenger Hawker Siddeley 125 owned by Mr. Parsley's church. Blackwell reimbursed Mr. Parsley $1,000 for the flights.
IRS' concerns
The IRS won't comment about the complaint against Mr. Parsley and Mr. Johnson, but the agency recently expressed concerns about the political activity of churches and other nonprofit groups during the 2004 campaign.
The IRS takes complaints of the kind filed against Mr. Parsley and Mr. Johnson seriously, but severe penalties -- such as revoking their churches' tax-exempt status -- are almost unheard of, said Richard Wood, a law professor at Capital University and former IRS lawyer. More frequently, the IRS investigates the allegations, meets with church officials and works out a deal to prevent future violations, he said.
Liberal and conservative churches alike have brought politics into the pulpit recently, said Steven Waldman, editor of the religious resource Web site beliefnet.com.
During the 2004 campaign, "If you're keeping score, I think conservatives were politicizing the pulpit a bit more than liberals, but absolutely both sides were doing that," Waldman said.
The meetings on Blackwell's schedule add to the issues raised by the IRS complaint, said the Rev. Eric Williams, a United Church of Christ pastor who coordinated the complaint's filing.
"It just reinforces my understanding that there's been a lot of intention going into planning things, cultivating political relationships, developing the machination that goes into, you know, raising up this candidate," the Rev. Mr. Williams said.

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