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Hart Ache

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

According to a memo Liebert wrote to the Christian Coalition board, when she approached Reed with this information in the fall of 1995, he said he knew Hart owned the firms and assured her that Hart had sought out competitive bids. However, when Liebert asked Hart for copies of the bids, he refused to supply them.

After accumulating more evidence -- including an invoice Hart had apparently marked up some $85,000 -- Liebert again approached Reed in early May 1996. But Reed continued to brush off her concerns. "Ralph said we would 'just have to tell Ben to quit doing it,'" reads Liebert's statement. Reed also amended his earlier story. In a May 9 memo obtained by Mother Jones, he now claimed not to have known Hart had been passing invoices through his own printing company. (Both Reed and Hart declined to be interviewed for this article.)

At the time, the coalition was in the midst of an annual internal audit. According to a coalition source, when the auditor contacted Hart, Hart told him that auditing his direct mail operation would not be necessary, because he was going to resign. (He later changed his mind.) Around the time Hart professed to be leaving the coalition, he also tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the group's donor database, valued at more than $900,000. ("In my opinion, there is no legitimate reason for Mr. Hart's organization to need our complete database," wrote Wayne Welpe, head of the coalition's computer systems department, in a May 1996 memo.)

Then in late May, Liebert approached a coalition board member with her concerns about Hart and informed him that she had spoken with a U.S. attorney in order to determine whether the apparent markups might be unethical or even criminal. A special board meeting was called, at which Liebert presented evidence suggesting Hart had been ripping off the coalition. Liebert's case, fleshed out in her memo, was that Federal Printing "appeared to be, for all practical purposes, a 'paper' company that Hart Conover used for contracting out our printing and through which we were billed for printing and mailing services. Federal Printing apparently did no actual printing and was co-located with Hart Conover and Universal Lists in the same small suite of offices." Overall, Liebert estimated, Hart may have bagged the coalition for a total of "a million or more dollars" since 1994.

The coalition's leadership sprang into action -- but not against Hart. On May 30, two days after the board meeting, a coalition security guard showed up at Liebert's house with a sharply worded letter from board member Richard Weinhold. The letter stated that Liebert's documents were "insufficient" to support her claim of improper billing, reprimanded her for contacting outside authorities, and informed her that she was suspended with pay "effective immediately." She was asked to turn over any coalition property -- including "files, documents, and all building keys" -- immediately. After a six-month "vacation," Liebert was officially fired in December.

Hart's fate has been less clear. Following Liebert's accusations, the coalition hired the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand to undertake a specific audit of Hart's operation -- but both he and the coalition have insisted on keeping its results secret. Hart's lawyer, Steven Chameides, would only say that "the audit found nothing more serious than some keypunch and arithmetic errors in billing." As a result, Hart Conover agreed on a "payment adjustment" with the coalition in December, the specific terms of which Chameides and the coalition have also refused to disclose -- except to describe the payment as "minor."

However, the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Norfolk, Va. -- which last year began reviewing Hart's business records, including a package of invoices -- may not find Hart as blameless. Investigators have told persons close to the case that it might merit a grand jury investigation.

Not surprisingly, Hart no longer handles the Christian Coalition's direct mail, and the group is desperately trying to move on. As far as the coalition is concerned, spokesman Larry Cirignano says, the matter is settled -- and "private."

Sheryl Henderson is a freelance writer and a researcher for the American Spectator.

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