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Were donations to Gov. Crist's campaign coerced?

TAMPA — Staff members of Tampa Bay's largest church were directed two years ago to make $500 contributions to the campaign of Gov. Charlie Crist, a television network has charged.

The church denies the allegation.

MSNBC, in a report posted on its Web site this week, said it obtained an e-mail in which a staff member of Without Walls International Church wrote to others: "I need each of your checks for $500 made payable to: Charlie Crist for Governor. I need to send these our (sic) tonight."

Tax-exempt churches are banned by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service from supporting candidates for public office.

A roster of Crist contributors includes a $500 contribution on Feb. 2, 2006, from Marisol Mendoza, assistant to Pastor Randy White of Without Walls. Crist received simultaneous $500 contributions, the maximum allowed in Florida, from three Tampa Bay area residents whose terse descriptions of their occupations appeared to link them to Randy or Paula White, who was his wife and co-pastor then.

Without Walls declined comment on all the allegations Friday through a public relations representative.

Crist's spokeswoman Erin Isaac said neither Crist nor his campaign staff had any idea about the contribution requests made by church leaders. Isaac was a member of Crist's Republican campaign staff.

Carol Cassara, the church's spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement that the allegation was false.

"It is our understanding that no political contributions were solicited on behalf of the church," she wrote. "If individuals solicited contributions for a particular candidate on their own behalf, they would have been doing so just as people who support a particular candidate would do in any organization — asking among their friends and colleagues at work."

Since November, Without Walls has been one of six high-profile ministries targeted by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in a series of examinations of tax-exempt organizations.

The church submitted a package of documents to Senate investigators Monday, becoming the third ministry to do so. None of the documents were made public.

The investigators posed extensive questions about church finances, but not political activity.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has led the investigations, did not return a call Friday.

Staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this article.

Were donations to Gov. Crist's campaign coerced? 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 11:58am]
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