Deseret Morning News, Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LDS officials distance church from Romney

By Stephen Speckman
Deseret Morning News

LDS Church officials this week continued to distance the church from the potential presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his supporters.

Then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, IOC official Jean-Claude Killy, Kem Gardner and Mitt Romney attend a press conference in 1999. Gardner has reportedly taken blame for the current Romney political controversy.

Chuck Wing, Deseret Morning News
"The church has repeatedly stated its commitment to the principle of neutrality in party politics," LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills told the Deseret Morning News Monday. "These latest developments confirm that church leaders were not involved in candidate fund raising."

The developments are a Salt Lake Tribune story Monday that said prominent developer Kem Gardner, a friend and financial backer of Romney, takes the blame for "this whole mess." In that story, however, Gardner appears also to cast some blame on an overzealous political consultant.

Gardner did not return calls Monday from the Deseret Morning News.

"The mess" refers to Gardner arranging a meeting between Romney supporters and an LDS Church apostle. The meeting and what was purportedly said there ended up linking political support for Romney with the top ranks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Proof of blatant support of any candidate puts the church at risk of losing its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service and could damage Romney's prospects of getting the GOP nomination.

The Boston Globe over the past week has reported that an e-mail by Don Stirling, a Utah-based political consultant for Romney, said that LDS leaders, including church President Gordon B. Hinckley, knew about meetings between Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and Romney supporters, including Gardner.

And a Globe editorial Monday accused Romney of appearing to be "all too willing to entangle religion and politics."

"Voters who practice a different faith, or none at all, deserve assurances that he can separate the demands of public life from the urgings of Salt Lake City," the editorial concluded.

"I can state unequivocally that Elder Holland has never discussed with the (LDS) First Presidency the matters asserted in the Don Stirling e-mail," Bills said.

Earlier church statements said Elder Holland told the Romney supporters of the church's political neutrality policy.

Gardner told the Tribune that Stirling got carried away with his descriptions of a September meeting. "We know Mitt can't use the church," Gardner told the Tribune.

The church-owned Deseret Book Co. is also involved in the controversy because the Stirling e-mail was directed to its CEO, Sheri Dew. According to the Globe, the e-mail talked about a meeting last month between Gardner and Romney's son, Josh, adding that Gardner had also previously met with Holland.

Bills forwarded a statement Dew issued Sunday that said Deseret Book has done nothing to support fund-raising efforts for Romney and that it will maintain that approach.

Some Utahns, including Gardner, who was an LDS Church mission president in Massachusetts, have been longtime supporters of Romney.

The Massachusetts News reported in 2002 that when Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts, "influential" Utahns donated more than $41,000 to his campaign and more than $130,000 to the Massachusetts Republican Party. According to the report, Gardner and his wife each donated $500 to the campaign, with Gardner family members contributing $15,000 to the Massachusetts GOP.

As of Monday, Romney's Commonwealth PAC, which raises money for Republican candidates around the country, was sticking to a statement it issued over the weekend, saying it recognizes the political neutrality of the LDS Church.

"Don Stirling is an old and dear friend of Governor Romney," wrote Jared Young, PAC communications director. "He got over-enthusiastic and overstepped his bounds. The Commonwealth PAC has taken appropriate action to make sure it doesn't happen again."

At one point, two business school deans at church-owned Brigham Young University, also a tax-exempt entity, sent an e-mail on a school computer, soliciting BYU alumni to support Romney.

BYU officials condemned the solicitation, saying it violated the school's position of political neutrality.

Gardner told the Tribune that sending the e-mail on a school computer was not planned.

In response to Globe stories appearing Oct. 19 and 22, the LDS Church on its Web site stated, "In light of articles appearing in the media, we reaffirm the position of neutrality taken by the Church, and affirm the long-standing policy that no member occupying an official position in any organization of the Church is authorized to speak in behalf of the church concerning the church's stand on political issues."

Church members across the country were also reminded Sunday, as is the case in every election year, to vote for candidates that support their views of good government, but that the church itself is neutral in politics.

In another statement by the LDS Church, director of media relations Michael Otterson responded over the weekend to the Globe's request for an interview about the Stirling e-mail to Dew.

"What you have sent me is an e-mail between two parties, quoting a third party, none of which are church representatives," Otterson wrote. "We have no responsibility for what others may write and what they may think."


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