COLUMBUS (AP) -- Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has met with two conservative pastors more often than alleged in an IRS complaint accusing the pastors of improper support of his campaign for governor, according to a review of documents by The Associated Press.
While the complaint looked at nine publicly reported events sponsored by the pastors, a review of Blackwell's daily schedule found 18 other meetings or other contact with the pastors, including flights on a church-owned plane, meetings in Blackwell's office, and attendance at church services.
Blackwell, a Republican and favorite of conservatives, had contact with pastors Russell Johnson and Rod Parsley or their churches 27 times from January 2004 through March of this year, according to AP research. The research included a review of Blackwell's confidential schedule obtained through a public records request. That's more than a third of the total number of events with a religious theme listed on Blackwell's schedule, and represents the largest number of contacts with specific pastors.
At issue in the complaint is the context of the contacts. Blackwell says he was involved either as secretary of state or as an elected leader supporting a cause -- and in many cases the "cause" was a 2004 ban on gay marriage.
Liberal ministers critical of Johnson and Parsley question how the pastors can separate their ties to Blackwell from his campaign for governor.
Ohio's race for governor is being watched by Republicans and Democrats nationally because of the state's bellwether status. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio -- the state that gave President Bush the White House in 2004. In the past 100 years, only two Democrats have won the presidency without carrying Ohio.
Blackwell said none of his meetings with Parsley or Johnson -- or any of the dozens of other ministers or churches he visits regularly -- have anything to do with partisan politics. "Anybody that would peg the IRS complaint to the frequency in which I meet with any pastor would in fact be misinterpreting the code," he said. "The code does not prohibit or restrict interaction to any specific number. It talks about protecting against engaging in partisan politics."
Blackwell's GOP rival for governor, Attorney General Jim Petro, declined comment, except to say he occasionally meets with ministers, but not with Parsley or Johnson. Former candidate Betty Montgomery, currently Ohio's state auditor, also meets with ministers, but she has not met not with Parsley or Johnson.
The schedule obtained by the AP from Blackwell's office ends in September, when the official calendar was transferred to Blackwell's political campaign.
Asked for the public portion of Blackwell's schedule from September through March, the campaign provided 158 pages, but most events were blacked out as campaign-related -- which means they were not a public record.
Blackwell said no documents held by his campaign are covered under open records law, including calendar items that reflect events -- such as appearances with the pastors -- that he made as secretary of state.
Blackwell has been raising money for his governor's campaign since at least 2004, but years earlier he said that he planned to run.
He has never made a secret of the fact he is a conservative Christian who integrates his faith into his public and private life as often as possible. However, the records show the campaign is sensitive to the issue: "Public schools will be in attendence, so be careful of the way Christianity is included speech," according to a scheduling note for an October 7th event in Cincinnati.
Johnson is chairman of the Ohio Restoration Project, a group of religious conservatives that helped spearhead the gay marriage ban. He said the meetings reflect his church's association with Blackwell dating to before his run for governor and including Blackwell's support of the gay marriage ban. "I have never in a public gathering said, 'Vote for Ken Blackwell,'" Johnson said. "I have affirmed his strong stands for life, marriage, and candidly, low taxes."
Parsley is chairman of Reformation Ohio, a similar group whose goal is to convert 1 million people to Christianity, help the poor, and register 400,000 new voters. Parsley declined an interview request, but the church said in a statement he has met with Blackwell only in his capacity as secretary of state to discuss voter registration or Blackwell's support of traditional marriage.
The IRS complaint filed in January alleges Johnson and Parsley and their churches have improperly promoted Blackwell's gubernatorial campaign over other candidates by featuring him at large rallies. The complaint asks that the IRS investigate whether the pastors violated federal law prohibiting churches from engaging in political activity and endorsing candidates for political office.
Overall, Blackwell's schedule documents 75 meetings of a religious nature, including visits to churches, meetings with pastors and Christian business groups, speeches to church groups, and attendance at prayer breakfasts and Christian men's groups.
Blackwell's contacts with Johnson include meetings like the one on December 9, 2004, in his Columbus office at 1:00pm, when Johnson introduced the secretary of state to David Limbaugh, a conservative commentator and brother of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, according to the secretary of state's schedule. Later that day, Blackwell spoke at a fundraiser for Johnson's Fairfield Christian Academy.
Blackwell's meetings with Parsley include three flights to anti-gay marriage events in 2004 aboard the seven-passenger Hawker Siddeley 125 owned by Parsley's church. Blackwell reimbursed Parsley $1,000 for the flights.
The IRS won't comment about the complaint against Parsley and Johnson, but the agency recently expressed concerns about the political activity of churches and other nonprofit groups during the 2004 campaign.
The IRS takes complaints of the kind filed against Parsley and Johnson seriously, but severe penalties -- such as revoking their churches' tax-exempt status -- are almost unheard of, said Richard Wood, a law professor at Capital University and former IRS lawyer. More frequently, the IRS investigates the allegations, meets with church officials, and works out a deal to prevent future violations, Wood said.
Liberal and conservative churches alike have brought politics into the pulpit recently, said Steven Waldman, editor of the religious resource Web site beliefnet.com. During the 2004 campaign, "If you're keeping score, I think conservatives were politicizing the pulpit a bit more than liberals, but absolutely both sides were doing that,: Waldman said.
The meetings on Blackwell's schedule add to the issues raised by the IRS complaint, said the Rev. Eric Williams, a United Church of Christ pastor who coordinated the complaint's filing. "It just reinforces my understanding that there's been a lot of intention going into planning things, cultivating political relationships, developing the machination that goes into, you know, raising up this candidate," Williams said.
Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell meets frequently with ministers of many churches, but most often with Russell Johnson and Rod Parsley -- two pastors whose activities led to an IRS complaint alleging improper endorsement of Blackwell's campaign for governor.
Here's a look at those meetings and events, according to records obtained by The Associated Press:
April 28 : Russell Johnson interviewing Blackwell for a Christian newspaper, Statehouse office.
August 17: Meeting with Rod Parsley at World Harvest Church in suburban Columbus, 5:15pm
October 3: Church service at Parsley's church, 10:00am
October 4: Attendance at ``Rod Parsley Event'' at Hamilton Christian Center in Hamilton, 7:00pm
October 5: Attendance at "Rod Parsley Event" at Living Word Church, Vandalia, 7:00pm
October 18: Attendance at ``Rod Parsley Event'' at Calvary MinistriesInternational, Youngstown (included flight on plane owned by Parsley's church).
October 19: Attendance at "Rod Parsley Event" at Cathedral of Praise, Toledo, 7:00pm (included flight with Parsley).
November 7: Church service at Parsley's church, 9:45am
December 9: Meeting with Johnson and David Limbaugh, brother of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, in Columbus office, 1:00pm. Speaks at fundraiser at Fairfield Christian Academy at Johnson's Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, 5:30pm.
January 10: Meeting with Parsley at World Harvest Church, 9:30am. TV taping at Parsley's Breakthrough Ministries, 1pm.
February 15: Meeting with Johnson in Blackwell's Columbus office, 10:30am
March 14: Meeting at Parsley's church, 12:00pm. to 2:00pm.
March 24: TV taping at Parsley's church, 10:00am. Appearance with Parsley at news conference opposing casino gambling, Ohio Statehouse, 12:30pm
April 13: Conference call with Parsley and Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, 10am
May 9: Meeting at Parsley's church, 8:45am to noon.
August 23: Flight to Austin, Texas, with Parsley on church-owned plane to attend Texas Restoration Project event.
August 25: Keynote address at Johnson's Ohio Restoration Project/Patriot Pastors' meeting, Kings Island, 11:30am to 1:30pm.
August 29: Appearance at Parsley's Center for Moral Clarity regarding Reformation Ohio, an evangelization and voter registration group.
October 14: Appearance at Parsley rally announcing kick-off of Reformation Ohio, 10am
October 25: Speaker at Johnson's Ohio Restoration Project lunch, Findlay.
November 7: Appearance at Restoration Project fundraiser, Cincinnati. November 15: Speaker at Restoration Project luncheon, Dayton.
January 17 Appearance with Johnson at Ohio Restoration Project event, Hartville.
March 2: Appearance with Johnson at Restoration Project event, Portsmouth.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.