Church Leader Says He Was Lured into Abramoff Web

The pastor of a church in Maryland says he became tangled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal through a member of his evangelical congregation. Chris Geeslin says that the man used him as a front for possibly illegal activities.

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So far, most of those entangled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal have been politicians, their aids, or lobbyists. Today, we bring you the story of one person who doesn't fit any of these descriptions. A man who says he was unwittingly caught up in the affair and used by Abramoff and his associates. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

The Abramoff scandal has spread far and wide, from Indian reservations to floating gambling casinos in Florida. One of the unlikely places it's touched is the evangelical Christian community in Frederick, Maryland, about an hour north of Washington D.C.

Unidentified Woman: We say yes to your kingdom come and your will be done.

YDSTIE: Sunday morning services at the Redeemer International Family Church, a converted carpet warehouse just off interstate 270. Chris Geeslin pastors this congregation, along with his wife, Mary Ellen.

Unidentified Woman: We say yes to your dominion and your rule in our finances…

YDSTIE: Geeslin says he got tangled in the Abramoff scandal through a member of his evangelical flock, a man named Ed Buckham, who seemed to be a model Christian.

Rev. CHRIS GEESLIN (Pastor, Redeemer International Family Church): Very devout. A man who prays. A man who is in the Bible. You know, everything that we would want in a church person.

YDSTIE: When they first met, more than 15 years ago, Geeslin says Buckham was spending his days climbing the career ladder on Capitol Hill. In 1995, Buckham became Chief of Staff to Texas Republican Tom DeLay, who was then the House Majority Whip. Buckham was viewed as one of the most powerful staff members in Congress. He was also DeLay's spiritual advisor.

Geeslin himself had ordained Buckham into the ministry, and they often had long prayer sessions together.

Rev. GEESLIN: We would meet early in the morning and we would pray for an hour, or so.

YDSTIE: For who were you praying? Who were the people that were on Ed Buckham's mind?

Rev. GEESLIN: We would be praying for the United States to come back to God in our mind, to come back to the vision of the founding fathers, to come back to a more Christ-centered society.

YDSTIE: But now, sitting in his modest church office, Geeslin tells a story of betrayal. He says Ed Buckham deceived him, and used him as a front for unethical, and possibly illegal activities involving political corruption, Russian oil magnates, and sweatshops.

One day in 1998, says Geeslin, Buckham asked him and his wife to be on the board of a new non-profit he had just started.

Rev. GEESLIN: He said, I've started this entity, U.S. Family Network, and I'd like you and your wife to be on the board. And, you know, we want to - this is going to be a help to bring the United States back to God. So now, here we were with a man who was one of the most brilliant, smartest and most effective leaders; so when he said that to us, we jumped on it, and my wife and I joined U.S. Family Network.

YDSTIE: Geeslin became president; his wife, Mary Ellen became secretary/treasurer. Three other evangelical Christians from a small town in Washington State were put on the board.

Ed Buckham, who was about to leave DeLay's staff to become a lobbyist, was officially a consultant. But Geeslin says, in fact, Buckham ran U.S. Family Network. He raised the money, decided how it was spent, and controlled the checkbook. And Geeslin says, he now realizes that the organization had more to do with enriching Ed Buckham and advancing Jack Abramoff's interests, than bringing America back to God.

Geeslin first became uneasy when large donations started rolling in, one for a million dollars. He says he suggested to Buckham, that maybe the group should focus more on being the grassroots organization described in the U.S. Family Network Mission Statement.

Rev. GEESLIN: And he looked at me with some disdain and he said, you know where that million dollars came from. I said, well, no. And he told me, this is the way Washington works, and he kind of was schooling me, so to speak. And he said, that money came from Russian energy magnates, or oil magnates, who wanted to influence Congressman DeLay so that he would not vote against the IMF funding of the bailout of Russia. And again he said, that's the way Washington works. It runs on money.

At the time, I didn't know what to do with that. It was like, this has got to be a joke, or this is like beyond belief. It's surreal.

YDSTIE: The Washington Post has linked that million-dollar donation to a Russian energy company with connections to Abramoff.

DeLay, Buckham, and Abramoff, traveled to Russia in 1997 and met with two of the company's executives. The next year, DeLay voted for the Russian bailout, despite considerable concern about the deal among conservatives.

Rev. GEESLIN: In my mind, by Ed Buckham's own words, and if Tom DeLay actually knew this, then that is public corruption.

YDSTIE: Did Ed Buckham describe to you how this million dollars was going to benefit Tom DeLay in any way? Why would Tom DeLay vote a particular way because a million dollars was given to the U.S. Family Network?

Rev. GEESLIN: He didn't tell me what Tom DeLay would get out of it. He didn't say that he would get anything out of it.

This is what I know, I mean, Ed Buckham is very close to the DeLays. They were very, very close.

YDSTIE: In fact, DeLay's wife, Christine, was employed by Ed Buckham's lobbying firm. And one of DeLay's political action committees had an office in the U.S. Family Network townhouse on Capitol Hill, where Congressman DeLay went to make fundraising calls.

The Russian money wasn't the only donation to U.S. Family Network that concerned Geeslin. More than half-a-million dollars came from textile companies represented by Abramoff that had factories in the Marianas Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific. Geeslin says he had been troubled by investigative news stories - backed up by Senate hearings - that charged there were sweatshop conditions in those factories. He says Buckham provided articles countering the charges.

Rev. GEESLIN: The articles that we received said it wasn't a sweatshop. They said it was a great free market entity. Now we know that those articles were paid for by Jack Abramoff to counter those investigations.

So here we are, a pro-family, supposed to raise a high standard, and we're taking money from a group that's involved in forced abortions, forced prostitution, and, you know, just terrible work conditions in general. And then gambling Indian interests was where a lot of the money was also coming from.

And these are all things that are absolutely counter to the Christian ideal, okay? All those issues. It's corrupt money. It's evil money.

YDSTIE: Congressman DeLay, who visited the Marianas with Buckham and Abramoff, was a defender of the Islands' manufacturers and fought Clinton administration efforts for increased regulation there.

U.S. Family Network closed its doors in 2001, after a run-in with the federal election commission over a half-million dollar contribution from the National Republican Campaign Committee. The money was improperly used for political ads. The NRCC was fined $280,000 in the case.

Chris Geeslin says as each new detail emerges, he grows more disillusioned.

Rev. GEESLIN: I feel like we were used in a grand way, and it's brought a reproach upon the whole evangelical movement. It's been amazing to me to see the continued evangelical support for Congressman DeLay. You know, it is true that Congressman DeLay, for years, touted our issues. But there's just too much smoke around him, you know. There's too much ethical pushing to the line, so to speak.

The bible says you can't have bitter water coming from the same water source as clean water comes from. To me, he's not the champion, and Ed Buckham's not the champion, of Christ on Capitol Hill.

YDSTIE: Responding to Geeslin, Tom DeLay's lawyer, Richard Cullen, said it's puzzling and a little sad that a minister would be publicly critical of another man's faith. Cullen also rejects the suggestion that DeLay's votes were based on anything but strongly held principles.

DeLay, who's also fighting legal battles in Texas, has announced he will give up his congressional seat next week. Calls to Ed Buckham's lawyer were not returned, and an Abramoff spokesman declined to comment.

In the end, the U.S. Family Network raised about $3 million during its five-year lifespan. The Washington Post calculates $1 million of that went to Ed Buckham and his wife.

Buckham's activities are being scrutinized by investigators, but so far he has not been indicted.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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