In response to a statement in a September 4 book review in The Washington Post, Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based social welfare organization founded by Charles W. Colson that is dedicated to converting prisoners to evangelical Christianity, made the misleading claim that "neither Prison Fellowship nor Chuck Colson have ever received federal funds of any kind." In fact, organizations linked to Colson's faith-based empire have reportedly received significant funds from the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Colson is a self-described "hatchet man" for President Nixon who became born-again Christian after serving seven months in prison on charges related to the Watergate scandal.
In his Post review of Jonathan Aitken's biography Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (WaterBrook Press, July 2005) Rutgers University professor David Greenberg alleged that Colson had accepted federal grants through President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Greenberg wrote:
Today, however, President Bush doles out taxpayer monies to groups performing Christian social work under a plan Colson has advocated. ... Indeed, in the book's final pages, Aitken fleetingly mentions that grants from Bush's faith-based initiative now fill Colson's coffers. In this context, it seems, "redemption" means cashing in.
Greenberg's claim that Aitken described Colson's acceptance of federal faith-based money is erroneous. Although Aitken recounted Colson's lobbying efforts on behalf of Bush's faith-based initiative ("These policies [federal funding of religious social welfare groups] have been directly influenced by Colson."), nowhere in the book did Aitken mention that Colson accepted federal faith-based grants. But Greenberg's broader claim -- that Colson's empire has received federal faith-based money -- merits further examination.
Earley has disputed Greenberg's claim in a note on the Prison Fellowship website, which ran as a letter to the editor in the October 2 edition of the Post, and in a commentary on Colson's BreakPoint website. From the note on the Prison Fellowship website:
Mr. Greenberg incorrectly asserts that Aitken's book "mentions that grants from Bush's faith-based initiative now fill Colson's coffers." First, Aitken's book says no such thing. Second, as president of Prison Fellowship, I am intimately aware of the ministry's finances and can say that neither Prison Fellowship nor Chuck Colson have ever received federal funds of any kind.
Earley added that Colson has maintained strict financial integrity so "no one could question his commitment to Christ."
Scott Johnson, a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute and a contributor to the right-wing weblog Power Line, echoed Earley's denunciation on The Weekly Standard's website, The Daily Standard. "Moreover, since its establishment in 1976," Johnson claimed, "the Prison Fellowship Ministry has never accepted federal funds. How Bush's faith-based initiative has filled Colson's coffers is a mystery known only to Professor Greenberg."
But research by Media Matters for America into whether Colson's ministry has accepted federal money revealed that a local faith-based social work group operating within Colson's faith-based empire has accepted thousands of dollars in federal funding. And a consulting firm with strong ties to Colson and that contracts with Prison Fellowship accepted more than $2 million from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported on January 14, the MentorKids USA program (now known as Phoenix MatchPoint) accepted a $225,000, three-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2003. MinistryWatch, an online database profiling the 400 largest church ministries in the United States, described MentorKids as "an independently incorporated affiliate of Prison Fellowship." An August 2003 article on Slate.com reported that MentorKids' chairman, Jerry Wilger, was employed as the executive national director of Colson's Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative in 2003, when MentorKids received the grant from HHS.
According to MinistryWatch, MentorKids "arose ... from the encouragement of Chuck Colson," whose Prison Fellowship "has served as the test-bed for the MatchPoint program in helping to see what works and what doesn't."
MentorKids' faith-based grant was rescinded in January, when U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled that the group was using public money to support religious proselytizing. According to the Associated Press, MentorKids volunteers were "encouraged to share their faith with the children they worked with, introduce them to Scripture and provide monthly reports on whether the kids had discussed God, participated in Bible study or attended church." The Wisconsin State Journal reported that "[t]he MentorKids program qualified in 2003 for a $225,000 three-year grant and received all but $75,000 of it before being cut off in December."
In October 2003, HHS announced a $2.2 million grant to the Colson-linked Dare Mighty Things (DMT) to operate the National Resource Center of HHS' Compassion Capital Fund. DMT is operated by several former employees of Prison Fellowship. DMT president and CEO David Van Patten is Prison Fellowship's former national director. As MinistryWatch noted, Van Patten oversaw the creation of materials for MentorKids in collaboration with Prison Fellowship's Karen Strong.
DMT vice president Frank Lofaro is a former executive director and senior vice president of programs at Prison Fellowship. Lofaro works to maintain the close relationship among the White House, DMT, and Prison Fellowship. According to his bio on the DMT webpage, "[W]ith the establishment of President Bush's Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives, Frank played a lead role in laying the foundation for future collaboration with Prison Fellowship in the areas of aftercare and mentoring programming opportunities."
Prison Fellowship Ministries and Prison Fellowship International remain clients of DMT.