COLVILLE – A small evangelical church has found itself entangled in a federal investigation into public corruption and a disgraced lobbyist.
In the summer of 2000, Shiloh Fellowship Ministries had a notable benefactor: a national “pro-family” nonprofit run by Edwin A. Buckham, once a top adviser to outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay.
Shortly before it disbanded, the Virginia-based nonprofit, U.S. Family Network, paid $10,300 to the church to establish a prayer center in this remote town 50 miles from the Canadian border.
The church’s pastor, 64-year-old Len C. Phelps of Republic, Wash., served on the board of directors for U.S. Family Network. That organization paid more than a million dollars to Buckham and his wife, and paid DeLay’s wife about $3,200 a month, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.
Another church member and Republic resident, Brett Leonard, 37, also served on the nonprofit’s board of directors, along with former Republic resident William G. Dahlgren, according to records obtained by The Spokesman-Review. Dahlgren died in 1999.
After receiving the money, the congregation moved from the basement of a grange hall into a 100-year-old church in Colville, a town of 5,000 people. Church leaders said they have not been contacted by federal investigators, but the investigators have subpoenaed records from U.S. Family.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Phelps said in an interview in his small office. “I don’t want people coming here and throwing stones at us. Our motives were pure. We only wanted to help America.”
In the 1990s, the three Republic men – seeking to restore America “to its Christian roots” – traveled repeatedly to the nation’s capital to pray for the country’s future. They prayed for political change, and celebrated when Republicans swept control of the U.S. Congress in 1994. In marathon prayer sessions that often lasted six to eight hours, the men huddled with DeLay’s chief of staff and spiritual adviser, Buckham, at his farmhouse outside Washington, D.C.
But a decade later, it is their work with U.S. Family Network – a nonprofit established by Buckham – that has raised questions.
U.S. Family Network and its directors have become entwined in a sprawling investigation involving Texas congressman DeLay, who eventually rose to the post of House majority leader, Buckham and Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud clients and bribe a public official.
Christopher Geeslin, a former board president and pastor in Frederick, Md., said nearly all the money raised by U.S. Family Network came from clients of Abramoff – including Russian oil and gas executives and textile companies in the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, according to media reports.
“In my opinion, the money we took in to bring America back to God was all from these tainted sources,” Geeslin said in an interview this week. “I believe that we were a shell organization for (Buckham’s) own enrichment, and possibly public corruption. It’s very disheartening to me and I’m sure the rest of the board.”
Called to nation’s Capitol
Even in the 1960s, Len Phelps knew he would one day go to Washington, D.C.
A zealous Christian who made his living as an electronics distributor in Seattle, Phelps said he received several divine revelations – that he would become a minister and that he would be called to the nation’s Capitol.
In 1993, at the invitation of a wealthy Christian who had heard of Phelps’ work with street people in Seattle, the pastor traveled to Washington, D.C., and then to Philadelphia, where he met Buckham at a religious gathering.
Phelps told Buckham they were witnessing the “moral collapse” of America. He said the country was “facing serious discipline from God … (that) basically we’d become a secular society and denied our Christian roots.”
“Ed said, ‘You know, I’ve been praying for someone to come here,’ ” Phelps recalled.
The following year, Phelps and Brett Leonard left their Seattle ministry to move to Republic. Both said they “felt called” to the small town about 50 minutes from Colville. Dahlgren, a recovering alcoholic and a former advertising manager for the National Enquirer, met the men in Seattle, and later joined them in Republic.
Buckham, a charismatic political aide who attended Geeslin’s church in Maryland for 20 years, began flying the Republic men to Washington, D.C., for marathon prayer sessions. The men developed a deep trust in Buckham, who had been licensed as a minister.
“We were praying that God would change the control of the political machine and return us to a Christian culture,” Phelps said.
After Republicans swept control of the U.S. Congress in 1994, Phelps felt the power of their prayers had begun to sway the country.
In 1996, Buckham formed U.S. Family Network, which was exempt from federal income taxes, in Virginia, according to Federal Election Commission documents. The nonprofit would operate as a public advocacy group, supporting legislation and candidates that aligned with the directors’ conservative beliefs, Phelps and Leonard said.
Buckham left DeLay’s staff at the end of 1997, but continued to operate the congressman’s principal fundraising committee, as well as U.S. Family Network.
Dahlgren agreed to serve as the group’s first chairman and director in 1997.
Geeslin, Leonard and Phelps later joined the board.
“(Ed) said, ‘If you really want to help change the country, then why don’t you come on this board?’ ” Geeslin said. “We jumped on it.”
Geeslin now believes he and the three Republic men were invited onto the board because they trusted Buckham wholeheartedly.
“Were we naïve? Yes,” Geeslin said in an interview this month. “The biggest mistake we ever made was trusting Ed.”
A chance to help America
The board members were flown to meetings in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Branson, Mo., and western Maryland, Geeslin said.
Phelps and Leonard served as chairman and director, respectively, of U.S. Family Network from 1998 through 2000, according to documents filed with the secretary of state in Virginia.
Dahlgren left in 1998, but did not tell Geeslin why. Dahlgren died the following year.
Geeslin, Phelps and Leonard said they relied on Buckham to handle the finances. At the director’s meetings, Buckham would discuss upcoming legislation with the men, but money was rarely a topic, according to the Republic men.
“It was agreed that Ed would raise the money and spend it,” Phelps said. “We didn’t have anything to do with spending the money.”
Geeslin estimated that almost all the money flowed from clients of Abramoff – a contention that was supported by the Washington Post’s review of the group’s tax records.
In addition to the payments to Buckham and his wife, U.S. Family Network paid DeLay’s wife, Christine, about $3,200 a month during a three-year period, the Post reported.
In one instance, the Post reported, Abramoff helped Mariana textile companies solicit and receive DeLay’s public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs. The companies had donated $500,000 to U.S. Family Network, the Post reported.
Geeslin said when the board questioned Buckham about working conditions on the islands, including rumors of sweatshops and forced labor, “Ed told us that wasn’t true. Now I know it is true, and it makes me sick to my stomach.”
When Buckham mentioned an international bailout to help “Russian energy czars, it just seemed absurd to me,” Geeslin said. “That conversation just blew me out of the water. It just seemed beyond believable.”
Even in the more mundane operations, the group ran into problems.
In October 1999, the National Republican Congressional Committee transferred $500,000 to USFN, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. The following day, USFN transferred $100,000 to Americans for Economic Growth, which was run by Jim Ellis, who shared an office with Buckham, according to the documents.
The money was then used to purchase issue ads in the 2000 elections – a violation of federal law, which prohibits political parties from giving nonfederal funds to a third party to pay for ads, the FEC later ruled.
The Republican committee agreed to pay a $280,000 civil penalty; the FEC ruled it would “take no action at this time against the U.S. Family Network.”
By the time the penalty was paid in 2004, U.S. Family had disintegrated.
According to the Post, the nonprofit had spent $62,375 on wall art, $11,548 on airfare and meals for Abramoff, and $267,202 in travel and entertainment expenses, apparently for Buckham, the board members and its staff.
‘Wake up America’
In the small town of Colville, the prayers continue today.
On Thursday afternoon, Phelps and Leonard met with other members of the congregation to pray. The church’s 75 members pray not just for local issues but also for the nation, Phelps said.
It is a modest church, valued at $17,080 by a Stevens County assessor. In his wood-paneled office, Phelps has hung prints of George Washington and Ronald Reagan on the wood-paneled walls.
Each Sunday, as well as several other times a week, Leonard and Phelps drive the winding road from Republic, and then up over Sherman Pass and down to the little church. They pray for the return of prayer in schools, and an end to abortion.
“We pray with a lot of tears sometimes,” Phelps said. “We’re just trying to get America to wake up.”
Phelps said the hurricane that struck New Orleans and the attacks of Sept. 11 are the result of God disciplining a wayward country.
“We’re in a disciplinary pattern now, and there’s going to be more this year,” Phelps said. “We don’t know which cities are next, but we know there will be more storms.”
Phelps said he considers Buckham a “dear friend,” but hasn’t spoken to him about the investigation. He said he continues to process the news, but he is withholding judgment.
“We didn’t know where the money was being spent until afterward,” Phelps said quietly. “We didn’t even know who some of these people were. We’re just finding out now.”
Geeslin, who left his Maryland church over the dispute with Buckham, is less conflicted.
He has sat through interviews with federal investigators and turned over the nonprofit’s records.
“They might still believe that this is some terrible mistake, and it’s just the liberal press that dreamed it up,” Geeslin said. “I hope they understand the truth that we were used.”