Some questions were left hanging when we broadcast and blogged last month on the Clarion Fund, the 501(c)(3) charity that distributed its DVD, "Obsession: Radical Islam's Attack on the West," across 14 battleground states last month. We don't have all the answers now, but we have some new details.
A summary of what we knew then: The obscure Manhattan-based charity had sent out the DVD as inserts in Sunday papers three days after the 9/11 anniversary. NPR got complaints from some listeners about the inflammatory nature of the video. They said it seemed like a partisan message in favor of Republican John McCain, even though "Obsession" was produced long before the presidential campaign began. Clarion acknowledged that it intended to make Islamic radicalism a campaign issue, and said it chose the battleground states to attract media attention. It also did mass mailings of "Obsession."
On Sept. 11 itself, the video was shown at a free screening in Dearborn, MI, a city with a large Arab-American population. The organizer, Joe Wierzbicki, is a Republican campaign consultant whose clients include two anti-Obama groups.
Since then, we've spoken with Weirzbicki, who hadn't responded to our initial requests. We've talked with a PR firm that was hired by Clarion the day our broadcast story aired. And we've obtained Clarion's initial filing for a 501(c)(3) tax exemption.
Wierzbicki said he was recruited to handle the Dearborn event because he's from the Detroit area. He said they hoped to spark a discussion with local Muslims about the threat from radical groups, but turnout was low and there were no protesters.
He said he was hired by Right Reel, a distributor of conservative films, but he expressed doubt that Right Reel was the ultimate funder of the screening. Did the money to pay him come from Clarion? "I don't know if they were involved," he said. "They never contacted me."
Clarion's new PR firm took questions from us and tried to get answers...
Clarion said it had nothing to do with the Dearborn screening. It also said it used only U.S. donors' money to distribute "Obsession."
Critics of the video suspect that it's being deployed as a partisan campaign tool, to play on the false rumors that Democrat Barack Obama is sympathetic to radical Islam. Clarion declined to say if it targeted particular demographic groups in mailing the DVD. An answer might have put that allegation to rest.
And we still don't know how closely Clarion is tied to Aish HaTorah, an international Jewish educational organization with offices in New York. Clarion's incorporation papers share the same address; the PR firm says that's no longer the case.
But public filings list four directors of Clarion since its inception, and all four have ties to Aish HaTorah.
Clarion's initial filings with the IRS shed a little more light.
When Clarion applied for tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) charity in February 2007, it stated that its mission would include efforts to "ensure a mass audience for documentaries educating the American public on national security issues by utilizing all available distribution channels, including television, online video, special event screenings, and free DVD distribution on college campuses." About half of the work, Clarion said, would involve a "Terrorism Media Initiative" to promote "Obsession." And in fact, the video has been screened extensively at college campuses, often with controversy.
As for politics, the IRS form asked, "Do you support or oppose candidates in political campaigns in any way?" And the "No" box is checked.
The filings don't provide clues as to who funded the DVD distribution. The organization's projected budget included $400,000 in 2007 donations and $500,000 in 2008.
Following Clarion's application, the IRS asked for more information and some clarifications in order to make a decision.
Clarion sent additional materials on July 23, 2007, telling the IRS it hoped to resolve the issue quickly so it could hold a fundraiser with official 501(c)(3) status that August. The IRS granted the tax exemption four days later.