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Hart Ache

Did Ralph Reed's friend try to rip off the Christian Coalition?

It was a business relationship and friendship that, until recently, appeared mutually rewarding. Working side by side, Ralph Reed and Benjamin Hart were two key players behind the Christian Coalition's rise to political prominence. While Reed, the coalition's departing executive director, is credited with expanding the grassroots organization's membership and moderating its image, it is Hart, the coalition's former fundraiser and direct mail vendor, who coordinated the aggressive behind-the-scenes mail campaigns that helped bring in millions in annual donations.

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But today, Reed and Hart's partnership appears to have come to an end. In April, Reed announced he would leave the coalition to open a political consulting firm. Hart, meanwhile, faces allegations of unethical billing practices and of marking up the coalition's invoices. As a result, he has been targeted by federal investigators for possible mail fraud.

When Benjamin Hart arrived at the Christian Coalition in 1992, he seemed an ideal fit for the upstart religious group, which was just beginning to flex its political muscle. With an almost perfect conservative background (co-founder of the Dartmouth Review, director of lectures and seminars at the Heritage Foundation, and executive director of Oliver North's Freedom Alliance), Hart became Reed's close confidant in the expansion of the coalition. And donations rose from $5.3 million in 1991 to $21.2 million in 1994.

Although technically an outside contractor, Hart quickly became known as Reed's No. 2 man. "Any conflict that came up with Hart was going to go Hart's way," says one person who worked closely with Reed, "so we had to bend over backwards to make him happy." Not only did Reed defer direct mail decisions to Hart, he also allowed Hart to coordinate the group's telemarketing projects, print its voter guides, and oversee the bidding on its million-piece direct mail packages. "Things were handled loosely from the beginning," says a coalition employee. "[But] Hart was always bringing money in. As long as he was bringing money in, everyone was happy."

Hart was bringing in money personally, too. In 1994, he built an $855,000 mansion in Great Falls, Va. Then there was the shiny green Jaguar. Over time, these luxuries began to arouse suspicion.

Hart's problems at the coalition began in the fall of 1995, when the coalition's marketing director, Donald Black, discovered that Hart's firm, Hart Conover, actually owned two of the vendors it was using to handle the coalition's mailings: Universal Lists (which rented mailing lists to the coalition) and Federal Printing & Mailing (which handled the group's direct mail solicitations). In a memo to coalition CFO Judy Liebert, Black wrote, "This 'closed circle' of business provides Hart Conover with an extraordinary income stream. It doesn't give us the benefit of a competitive bidding environment. Consequently, our 'above the line' cost for direct mail fundraising is astronomical (somewhere in the 50 to 70 percent bracket). Even if this relationship is legally justifiable, it reflects an appearance of impropriety."

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