How to Get Rich Suing For Jesus
On July 31, the day that the Center for Medical Progress was sued over the release of a series of undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood, Jay Sekulow, a prominent Christian conservative lawyer, released an ad attacking President Obama over his support for the group.
“I call him the defender-in-chief,” said Sekulow, who looks like Saul Goodman with money and a good tailor. Dramatic background music akin to the score of a Hitchcock film played as he attacked Obama for “defending, relentlessly, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in light of all the videos that have been released this week.” The White House’s support for Planned Parenthood, Sekulow argued, was “unthinkable” on its own, but to blame the creators of the sting videos for anything at all, he said, “well, that just doesn't work.”
“The veneer of Planned Parenthood has been peeled back,” Sekulow said, and that meant whether or not Congress halted federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the group would never win the larger battle.
Sekulow had reason to make such an argument.
His charity and law firm, The American Center for Law and Justice, had signed on to represent the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion activist group, along with its founder, David Daleiden, and a board member, Troy Newman, against the National Abortion Federation’s claims that they had violated a nondisclosure agreement by releasing footage of Planned Parenthood executives coldly discussing the harvesting and sale of fetal tissue.
“This is a critical case involving the First Amendment and the constitutionally-protected rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Sekulow said in a press release announcing his new clients. “We are representing all of the defendants in this federal case and will aggressively defend against this unwarranted attack on the First Amendment.”
For Sekulow, who has made a career out of exploiting the idea that Christians are under attack by secular America, this lawsuit is about more than just some alleged agreement between two parties. It’s about freedom itself. If it also leads to enriching Jay Sekulow and his family and influencing right-wing rhetoric as conservatives fight to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress, all the better for them.
That has certainly been the case in the past.
An examination of tax returns for the American Center for Law and Justice, which Sekulow founded with Pat Robertson in 1990, and for Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, Sekulow’s other charity, which was founded in San Francisco in 1992, suggest that the two groups funnel millions of dollars into Sekulow’s coffers.
Both charities, oddly, use the name “American Center for Law and Justice” and share a website, ACLJ.org. But the incestuous relationship doesn’t end there.
The ACLJ and CASE’s stated objective is to “protect religious and constitutional freedoms” by providing legal services to allegedly persecuted Christians, such as the videographers who secretly taped the Planned Parenthood employees, but the considerable wealth with which they have blessed the Sekulow family seems to be more than just the fortuitous byproduct of carrying out the Lord’s work.
Now, none of what the Sekulow’s charities are doing is illegal: They are rated as a C+ by CharityWatch, a nonprofit watchdog group. But charity work has certainly made the Sekulow family a lot of money and, of course, the charity status makes them free and clear of federal taxes.
In 2005, the Legal Times reported that Sekulow had “multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” Six years later, in 2011, another investigation—this time by The Tennessean—revealed that Sekulow and his wife, Pam, owned three homes, in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, with a total value of more than $1.6 million.
At some charities, an executive’s lavish lifestyle might raise eyebrows, but at the ACLJ and CASE, the checks and balances are handled not by independent outsiders, but by Sekulow’s family.
The ACLJ’s 11-person board of trustees has two Sekulows on it, Jay and his brother Gary, the “VP of finance,” who has received $749,607 from the group in the last three years.
While the ACLJ’s 2014 tax returns suggest Jay Sekulow does not receive a salary from the organization, the ACLJ did pay $3,323,414 for “legal” services to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, a law firm that just happens to be co-owned by Jay Sekulow.
What makes it all the more unsavory, six members of CASE’s seven-person board are Sekulows, including Gary, the group’s CFO and COO, who receives an additional salary of over $400,000. From 2009 to 2013, as the Obama years saw a spike in alleged Christian persecution, the family did quite well: The six Sekulows on CASE’s board received a total of $2,170,566.
This is all on top of what The Tennessean calculated to be $33 million doled out to the Sekulows by the charities from 1998 to 2011.
In 2012, shortly after the Tennessean investigation appeared, Larry Crain, who was senior counsel at the ACLJ for 15 years, left the organization. Asked if his departure was related to the newspaper’s revelations, which the ACLJ called a “flawed” and “biased... attack,” Crain said, “I really—I’m not at liberty to discuss that. It was a mutual decision. I’m just not at liberty to discuss that.” Jay Sekulow, Crain assured me, is “brilliant” and “I have the highest regard for Mr. Sekulow.”
Born in Brooklyn on June 10, 1956, Sekulow began his career as a trial attorney for the IRS, representing the Department of Treasury. By the 1980s he was lost. His Atlanta law firm had failed and left him in debt, according to The Tennessean, and he found himself in need of a miracle. He was blessed with one in the form of a San Francisco-based group called Jews for Jesus.
Jews for Jesus had been handing out religious pamphlets at Los Angeles International Airport, much to the dismay of the commissioners running LAX. To Sekulow, this was a threat to freedom of religion and speech. He sued and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which in 1987 ruled 9-0 in favor of Jews for Jesus.
“I almost feel like God raised me back from the dead,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991, according to The Tennessean. “It was a spiritual rebirth.”
In a testimonial on Jews for Jesus’s website, Sekulow says he “committed his life to Jesus” in February 1976, after becoming convinced of his initial “suspicion” that “Jesus might really be the Messiah.”
In the 1990s, Sekulow took on Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group perhaps best known for the attempt by some of its members to hand then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton an aborted fetus. Sekulow has twice represented Operation Rescue before the Supreme Court, in 2003 and 2006.
In total, he has argued before the Supreme Court 12 times.
With every case he has taken on, Sekulow has steadily built a brand as the right’s legal guardian angel. In addition to the ACLJ and CASE he has built a small media empire, which includes a radio show, Jay Sekulow Live!, which “engages millions of people listening via 850 radio stations, as well as XM and SIRIUS satellite radio” every day, according to his personal website; a weekly TV show, ACLJ This Week, which airs on a series of Christian networks; and a side-gig pontificating on Fox News (particularly on Hannity) and the 700 Club as well as in the pages of the New York Daily News, The Washington Times, USA Today and on Townhall.com. He also “regularly blogs” at Beliefnet.com, which claims to have 5 million unique readers per month. He has a dad band, too, and frequently posts his music videos—like his cover of the Beatles’s “Revolution”—on YouTube. His guitar strap, fittingly, is covered in stars.
It helps that Sekulow, who did not respond to two interview requests from The Daily Beast, looks the part. He is a cable TV booker’s idea of what a legal expert should look like: well-tailored pinstripe suits, crisp white shirts, and jewel-colored power ties. His hair is suspiciously thick and neatly parted on the side. He wears black-rimmed glasses that frame a vaguely wolf-like stare.
He is, in short, utterly believable.
“He’s the smartest guy in the room,” one observer, who is tied into the Christian charity community, said. “He’s not gonna take on a case he can’t win. He knows how to get to the Supreme Court and win.”
The source said he once heard someone ask Sekulow if Christian bakers should be forced to bake cakes for same-sex marriages, “and he said they should just bake the cake, ’cause they’re gonna lose in court.”
That said, according to the source, Sekulow is a “true believer.”
Sekulow has used his high-profile legal cases and excellent media skills to ingratiate himself not just into the green rooms at Fox, but also into the upper echelons of Republican presidential campaigns.
In 2008 and 2012, Sekulow served as an adviser to Mitt Romney. In 2007, wearing a “Mitt” sticker on his lapel, Sekulow told a reporter at CPAC that he got to know Romney personally as they both “defended traditional marriage” in Massachusetts and was supporting his candidacy because “I know that he’s gonna appoint the right kind of judges and, for me, that’s what matters, is how these judicial nominations come into play and the next president will have probably two or three vacancies at the Supreme Court again, and who’s on that Supreme Court for the rest of my life?”
Four years later, Romney officially announced the elder Sekulow’s support for his second White House attempt on his campaign website, but when Sekulow’s charity work in Africa—that included backing the criminalization of homosexualitity in Zimbabwe—came under scrutiny by the media, a spokesman for Sekulow, Gene Kapp, told Mother Jones that his role on the campaign was “informal” and “unpaid” and the endorsement was made “in his individual capacity as a private citizen.”
Sekulow’s son, Jordan Sekulow, is also in the consultant game. He worked for George W. Bush’s campaign in 2004 as the national youth director, as vice chair of Romney’s National Faith and Values Steering Committee in 2008, and now advises Jeb Bush, the establishment favorite for the Republican nomination.
“I am excited to begin a conversation with conservatives about Governor Bush’s pro-life, pro-family, tax-cutting record in Florida,” the younger Sekulow said in March, when his role on the campaign was announced, “and the ideas we need to put into action to give every American a chance to rise up.”
In April, before Bush had even announced his candidacy, Jordan Sekulow was telling a crowd at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference that Bush would be the candidate to defund Planned Parenthood and to appoint the right kind of judges to the Supreme Court.
The Sekulow family political agenda is clear.
On their charity website, there is a full page of petitions that attempt to tap into right-wing anger about a wide range of liberal outrages. Some of the petitions make sense for a Christian organization (“defend religious freedom on college campuses” and “stop ISIS’s genocide of Christians”). But other ones seem to have no connection to the group’s mission (“protect national security—investigate Secretary of State Clinton’s emails”).
They all boast tens of thousands of signatures, but none is as popular as “stop Planned Parenthood harvesting and selling babies’ organs” which has 271,207. “Planned Parenthood is harvesting body parts from butchered babies,” it reads. “It’s startling and disgusting in scope.”
Republican allies in Congress are using the exposé videos to drum up support for their push to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood. To sway those unmoved by the contents of the exposé videos, Sekulow is making the argument that by questioning their right to be released, the National Abortion Federation and its pro-choice supporters are silencing Christians, whose freedom of speech has long been under assault by the PC establishment.
It’s sure to be a busy and lucrative fall for the Sekulow family.