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the Body Politic
Vol. 7, No. 3 - March 1997, Page 3
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.
Operator, Collect Call for Randall Terry
by Frederick Clarkson and Jonathan Hutson
Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and affiliates in Houston, San Diego, and Wisconsin filed a garnishment action in January against Oklahoma-based AmeriVision Communications. This long distance service provider cuts monthly checks to a number of religious right organizations, personal business ventures and underground groups, notably several controlled by Operation Rescue (O.R.) founder Randall A. Terry.
We put about $1.5 million into pro-life causes, and $16 million into Christian conservative causes. We're against Planned Parenthood; we're against the liberal press; we're against gay causes.
Vowing never to pay thousands of dollars in court-ordered fines or civil judgments for blockading, Terry declared in 1989 that he had taken his organizations' finances "underground". He scoffed when a Texas jury found in 1994 that his successor, Keith Tucci, and the above-ground O.R. National -- an offshoot of Terry's "underground" O.R. -- had conspired with Rescue America and its leader, Don Treshman, to blockade clinics. The jury awarded PPFA and Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas $1.01 million in punitive damages.
If successful, the Planned Parenthood garnishment action will divert Lifeline generated funds to Planned Parenthood. "Operation Rescue said in trial that they would never stop harassing our clients and staff, so we will relentlessly pursue these lawbreakers to the extent the law allows," said Judy Reiner, Vice President of PP Houston and Southeast Texas.
"They [Planned Parenthood] believe they are entitled to these funds," AmeriVision Vice President Carl Thompson told the Body Politic. "They believe wrong." He explained, "Any money we gave was a love gift, and no one is entitled to garnishee [sic] a love gift."
While Thompson granted that Terry endorses his company and its long distance service, Lifeline, he insisted that they had signed no contract and that they were not obliged to pay Terry any funds. "There was no written agreement," Thompson said. "We are very close to Randall Terry, we're on his show, Randall Terry Live, a lot. He does endorse AmeriVision." Indeed, Terry has signed an endorsement letter to his supporters.
AmeriVision handouts at a 1994 Christian Coalition conference stated that the company paid a total of over $70,000 per year to Operation Rescue, Randall Terry Live, and The Resistance. According to filings with the New York Secretary of State, these are all personal business ventures controlled by Randall Terry.
Assuming this payout figure remained level, AmeriVision would have paid Terry's groups and ventures some $210,000 over the past three years. In addition, AmeriVision advertises regular payments to Rescue America, O.R. National and O.R. California.
Yet Thompson claims there is no quid pro quo, that although Terry regularly airs free radio spots for Lifeline, he is not obliged to do so. "Most of the things we have are charities or royalties," Thompson told the Body Politic.
Thompson did not explain how AmeriVision distinguishes between a "love gift" and a "royalty". However, an AmeriVision ad contains the following language:"The benefits of Lifeline Long Distance include: 1) Payments to your organization! 10% of your domestic net paid long distance billing will be paid every month. You will be actively helping their worthy cause each and every time you make a long distance call."
The ad, mailed by AmeriVision to a list of supporters supplied by an endorser, indicates that what the company pays are not random, free-will offerings to the company's favorite charities, but precise, monthly royalties to endorsing organizations.
When pressed on the distinction between a gift and a royalty, Thompson sometimes conflates the terms. His claim that "[I]t's really a gift from us, but it's written off as a royalty," may work for tax purposes, but it remains to be seen if courts will view this semantic shell game as an effort to assist AmeriVision clients in the avoidance of court ordered judgments. In the garnishment action, Jay Sekulow of American Center for Law and Justice will defend AmeriVision.
"We get our law stuff for free," said Thompson. He continued, "His (Sekulow's) charity defends Christian rights. We put $2 million into that. That is a working agreement through a royalty arrangement."
The Karate Christian
Thompson, who likes to let people know that he has a black belt in karate, posts a sign on his office door: "Carl Thompson: Offensive Coordinator."
At the beginning of each day in the corporate life of AmeriVision, Thompson assembles the male managers in his office for a Bible devotional. The men-only management team is a family affair, and includes respectively Thompson's and company President Tracy Freeny's sons-in-law, Jeff and Shawn. However, Thompson's morning meeting surprises his brother Paul, who co-chairs the Oklahoma Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus. "Carl leads a daily Bible devotional? Did he miss the part that reads 'Judge not that ye be not judged'?"
This glimpse into the corporate culture of AmeriVision places in sharp relief the divisions in society created by the political and cultural momentum of the Christian Right. These divisions are the source of fast-growing AmeriVision's multi-million dollar business, which U.S. News and World Report calls a success story of "Christian Capitalism."
AmeriVision grew over 3,000 percent from 1993 to 1997. Revenues shot up, they claim, from $178,000 to $15,000,000 a month. The company's business strategy is premised on marketing its service primarily to conservative Christians, with the incentive that it forwards ten percent of its revenues to anti-abortion and Christian Right organizations. While such "affinity marketing" is not unusual in itself, as the company has grown, it has also become one of the largest funders of the Christian Right.
AmeriVision, which is a reseller of long distance service under the trade name
"LifeLine," purchases its long distance access at a discount primarily from WilTel, a subsidiary of the nation's fourth largest carrier, LDDS WorldCom.
AmeriVision then returns ten percent of its receipts from subscribers' long distance phone bills to some 25,000 client organizations from local churches to national Christian Right organizations -- including about $1 million each per year to Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America.
The client list also includes such leading organizations of the religious right as the Rutherford Institute, Oregon Citizens Alliance, state and local chapters of the National Right to Life Committee, and many state chapters of the Christian Coalition. (The Florida chapter receives $5,600 a month.) In 1996 AmeriVision says it provided long distance service to about 500,000 subscribers and paid out between $20-25 million.
LifeLine gets customers primarily by soliciting the donor, membership, or subscriber lists of endorsing organizations, which receive 10 percent of the subscribers' long distance phone bills. For example, a LifeLine solicitation letter for the Sacramento, California-based PAC, the Republican Victory Fund, offered members the "opportunity to support the Republican cause to increase Republican registration, target key, close races in the general election and have it not cost you one dime out of your pocket!" Carl Thompson told the Body Politic that "We give $100-200 thousand a year to Republican Victory Fund."
Because the clients actively promote LifeLine through their publications, the company itself does little advertising. For example, the nationally syndicated radio programs featuring Beverly LaHaye air free spots advising how Lifeline will help to fund Concerned Women of America, the cause which she heads.
If you're a Christian, and you're with AT&T, MCI, or Sprint, and you know about LifeLine, to me you are really sinning against God.
Rev. Bruce Moore
Until 1993, AmeriVision's largest client was the evangelical, charismatic Metro Church in Oklahoma City, which company President Tracy Freeny attends. AmeriVision's breakthrough came when the American Family Association (AFA) -- which claims 1.2 million members -- endorsed LifeLine. The stock soared from $40 to $100 per share. Thompson told the AFA Journal: "You can call us a fundamentalist, Christian, right-wing organization and we like it."
Thompson, who serves as the company spokesperson, said that "We put about $1.5 million into pro-life causes, and $16 million into Christian conservative causes. We're against Planned Parenthood; we're against the liberal press; we're against gay causes." Significantly, Thompson also uses "the liberal press" to build the business. He is quick to return reporters' calls, and provides some of the most colorful and inflammatory quotes of anyone on the Christian Right. For AmeriVision, stoking the fires of the culture wars is good business.
While Thompson provides the sound bites, AmeriVision president Tracy Freeny mostly moves behind the scenes. For example, he is a member of the secretive Council for National Policy, a leadership caucus of the religious right, which meets quarterly to network and strategize.
AmeriVision's controversial history began in 1988, when the tax-exempt Heart of America Foundation of Washington State launched LifeLine to resell MCI and Sprint long-distance services to Christians. In 1989, the foundation relocated to Oklahoma and added as directors, former insurance salesmen Freeny and Thompson. Freeny's for-profit company, Texas-based Ameri-TelCommunications, became the exclusive agent for LifeLine, and planned to use the Heart of America Foundation's tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status to set up a triangle trade between the company, the foundation, and client organizations.
According to the original business plan, Ameri-Tel was to "transfer... 10 percent of each subscriber's net long distance billing through the [Heart of America] Foundation to the non-profit organization designated by the subscriber." Funds were then to be channeled from the company to the clients through a foundation Charitable Trust Account.
While Carl Thompson agrees that this was the plan and that such an account was established, in an interview last year (with co-author Jonathan Hutson), Thompson alternately said that the foundation was "never" used for that purpose, that it "might have" been used, they "quit using it," but that in any case, ultimately "we shut it down."
However, documents signed by the principals in April 1990, and which emerged in a 1991 lawsuit for nonpayment by the company's former accounting firm, show that the accounting firm services were to include "payment of contributions to non-profit organizations" including "check preparation, mailing and maintenance of appropriate documents to identify amounts and dates of contribution from the Foundation." The firm was thus responsible for "[p]ayment of contributions to the non-profit organizations in accordance with instructions provided by the Company, and Foundation." Whether or not the foundation was ever used in this way, it remains "in good standing" with the office of the Oklahoma Secretary of State.
Ultimately, Freeny and Thompson bought out the founder, Rocky Marshall,settled the lawsuit, and established AmeriVision to sell LifeLine. Thompson claimed that Marshall "wasn't handling money properly," but that "since 1991, [when] me and Tracy took over; all we've done is run an extremely clean operation."
One of the remarkable features of AmeriVision's business activities is its negative marketing strategy, which highlights the social views of its competitors. For example, a typical LifeLine ad which appeared in the South Carolina Christian News & Herald blares "Stop Funding the Enemy!" The ad attacks AT&T and MCI for sponsoring "filth" on television, and Sprint as the long distance carrier for "a nationwide pro-homosexual affinity group." AmeriVision declares that it "will not knowingly offer its services to any organization whose principal activity is to promote, endorse, encourage, or carry out abortion, the homosexual agenda, pornography, or any form of occult involvement."
Freeny, a short, affable man, personally staffed a table at the Christian Coalition's 1995 national conference in Washington, DC., from which he and his wife distributed copies of materials by and about AT&T, MCI, Sprint, and Working Assets -- marked with yellow highlighter to emphasize competitors' support for abortion and gay rights organizations.
Sales agent Bruce Moore told one of us: "If you're a Christian, and you're with AT&T, MCI, or Sprint, and you know about LifeLine, to me you are really sinning against God." Carl Thompson frequently says they (other carriers) are "in league with the devil."
AmeriVision's claims not withstanding, it is not nearly as independent of "the system" as they claim. LDDS WorldCom has "reciprocal, alternate routing agreements with all the major carriers," (including the ever devilish AT&T and MCI,) as is standard industry practice, according to LDDS spokesperson Linda Laughlin. LDDS is also the principal carrier for "Community Spirit" -- the gay affinity group mentioned in their Christian News and Herald ad.
Meanwhile, the company "built on Biblical values" also wants to be big business. In 1995, it became a carrier by purchasing a "switch" -- a computer that transfers and routes calls, and receives information for billing purposes. But for AmeriVision to achieve its goal of becoming one of the top five carriers, it will need to buy at least ten more switches. Should they get that far, the switches will be but milestones on a longer road for AmeriVision.
Thompson keeps his eyes on the prize. "We do not believe in the separation of church and state," he told The Des Moines Register. "We believe the church should rule over the state." We are right-wing, fundamentalist Christians," Thompson declared, "and proud of it."
Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Democracy and Theocracy in the U.S., (see review on page 23.) Common Courage Press, 1997. Eternal Hostility is available from Net News.
Jonathan Hutson is an investigative journalist whose specialty in tracing the financing of underground groups has included organized crime and the anti-abortion movement.
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