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Sen. Thompson and Co.: they just couldn't handle the truth.

My son Nick and I went to see the movie "U.S. Marshals" recently. It's a sequel to "The Fugitive" (the movie from a few years back starring Harrison Ford), which featured the character of Chicago-based Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of my own brush with a U.S. marshal last summer, an incident considerably less dramatic than the scenes depicted in the film. (I, for example, didn't think for a minute about jumping from the office roof onto a passing train.) As you might recall, the marshal showed up at Americans United's offices on Aug. 4, 1997, bearing a subpoena from the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, headed by U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). The committee demanded AU turn over various documentation relating to our internal governance, activities and other matters.

Now seems like a good time for an update on that entire bizarre incident. But first a little background: Thompson's committee, allegedly investigating illegal campaign contributions during the last presidential election, decided to examine a wide range of non-profit groups that might have done illegal things in connection with those political campaigns.

Americans United was one of the groups on Thompson's list. This surprised me because we hadn't done anything remotely partisan. Americans United simply does not intervene in political campaigns, end of story. So why were we being investigated? AU staff members made a few discreet inquiries and soon learned the answer. A well-placed congressional source told us bluntly that the Americans United subpoena was in retaliation for a subpoena given to the Christian Coalition.

The committee wanted to see any documents we had relating to political activity. At that point, we consulted with the well-known Washington, D.C., law firm of McKenna and Cuneo, which provided us with excellent pro bono services.

After due reflection, we turned over a package of documents. I have to say, this was not the stuff of which headlines are made. Most of the letters were from me to political candidates, explaining that Americans United is non-partisan and thus unable to assist getting anyone elected to public office anywhere.

The committee also requested "any and all correspondence with the Internal Revenue Service." This we complied with eagerly because it gave us the opportunity to send Sen. Thompson all of our Project Fair Play letters reporting instances of religious groups and houses of worship abusing their tax-exempt status by intervening in partisan campaigns. I believed the committee would welcome this material, since it provided examples of the very type of wrong-doing it was allegedly eager to ferret out.

After our first filing to the committee, we heard absolutely nothing. There were no requests for more back-up material, no calls to clarify issues and certainly no invitation to appear at the televised hearing to discuss our evidence. Then, abruptly, Sen. Thompson announced on Oct. 31 that he was shutting down the entire investigation. A few weeks later, our boxes of material were returned to us.

Last month Thompson issued a report on his findings. In the short section on non-profits, an astonishingly reckless charge appears -- that all of the subpoenaed groups "were allegedly involved in a variety of questionable campaign practices...." In fact, no one at any time made such an allegation about Americans United. Representatives from other groups, including Christian Coalition officials, refused to even show up when subpoenaed to give depositions, but we maintained that we would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter.

Since we gave the committee much of what they sought, isn't it curious that they didn't want to learn more? Not if that meant taking on the Christian Coalition, I guess. After all, Sen. Thompson and his ultra-conservative colleagues in the Senate are the ones who benefit the most from the group's activities.

But the Thompson Committee was not a complete waste of time. The minority report, written by Democratic staff, has a whole chapter on the Christian Coalition and its repeated abuses of election law. A large number of the citations regarding improper Coalition activities come from Church & State magazine.

As it happens, another congressional body, the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation, is also interested in some of the issues we raised about non-profit partisan activity. I testified before its staff January 21, and they seemed genuinely impressed with the details presented. A report from that committee may be forthcoming this summer.

I like history. I like accurate history even more. Even though Sen. Thompson apparently didn't want the truth, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Thompson Committee's minority report at least strike some blows for truth-telling.

And that reminds me of another movie. Jack Nicholson in a "A Few Good Men" tells a judge investigating a possible assault, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" Thompson was an actor before he became a senator, and there are rumors he'd like to be president some day. I have some advice for him: When you're hoping to run the country, handling the truth ought to be in your portfolio.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Title Annotation:Sen. Fred Thompson, head, Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Author:Lynn, Barry W.
Publication:Church & State
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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