RICHMOND, Va. – A watchdog group claims the Rev. Jerry Falwell (search) violated campaign finance laws by endorsing President Bush and soliciting funds for a conservative political action committee on his ministries' Web site.
In a complaint filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission (search), the Campaign Legal Center said Jerry Falwell Ministries and a lobbying organization affiliated with Falwell were politicking for the president by endorsing him earlier this month, which they are barred from doing as nonprofit corporations.
The complaint follows a separate letter sent by a religious watchdog group to the Internal Revenue Service accusing Falwell of violating his ministries' tax-exempt status by endorsing a political candidate.
In an e-mail newsletter sent to followers July 1, Falwell urged conservatives to vote for Bush and "flood Campaign for Working Families with financial help." The Campaign for Working Families is run by Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who opposes abortion and gay marriage.
Falwell's newsletter appeared on the ministries' official Web site, and also included a link to the contribution site for the Campaign for Working Families.
According to campaign finance law, corporations are permitted to endorse candidates only in publications sent to employees, shareholders and their families.
"They put it on a Web site that is available to members of the general public," said J. Gerald Hebert, director of litigation for the Campaign Legal Center. "That is blatantly illegal."
Falwell contends he was expressing his personal opinion. He pointed out Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry spoke Sunday in a black church in Columbus, Ohio, where he received the endorsement of church leaders.
"When (the Campaign Legal Center) starts going after the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons, I might begin believing in their credibility," Falwell said Wednesday. "Right now they have none."
The Campaign Legal Center describes itself as a nonpartisan group on its Web site; it is headed by Trevor Potter, who was chairman of the FEC under President George H.W. Bush.
The FEC is prevented by law from commenting on complaints after they have been received, said spokeswoman Kelly Huff. She said Falwell will have 15 days to respond once he is notified of the complaint.