BY BOB SMIETANA (the Tennessean)
Steven Emerson has 3.39 million reasons to fear Muslims.
That’s how many dollars Emerson’s for-profit company – Washington-based SAE Productions – collected in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they’re in imminent danger from Muslims.
Emerson is a leading member of a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances.
Leaders of the so-called “anti-jihad” movement portray themselves as patriots, defending America against radical Islam. And they’ve found an eager audience in ultra-conservative Christians and mosque opponents in Tennessee. One national consultant testified in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at stopping a new Murfreesboro mosque.
But beyond the rhetoric, Emerson’s organization’s tax-exempt status is facing questions at the same time he’s accusing Muslim groups of tax improprieties.
“Basically, you have a nonprofit acting as a front organization, and all that money going to a for-profit,” said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog group. “It’s wrong. This is off the charts.”
But a spokesman for Emerson’s company said the actions were legal and designed to protect workers there from death threats.
“It’s all done for security reasons,” said Ray Locker, a spokesman for SAE Productions.
Emerson made his name in the mid-1990s with a documentary film, “Jihad in America,” which aired on PBS. Produced after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the film uncovered terrorists raising money in the United States.
He followed up with the books “Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S.” and “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us.”
He claims that extremists control 80 percent of mosques in the United States. In August, he claimed to have uncovered 13 hours of audiotapes proving that Feisal Rauf, the imam behind the proposed mosque near ground zero in Manhattan, is a radical extremist.
Emerson formed a Tennessee connection last summer, when his organization uncovered pictures on a Murfreesboro mosque board member’s MySpace page. His company said the pictures are proof of a connection to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization. But mosque leaders said they checked with the Department of Homeland Security and found the concerns were groundless.
Special Agent Keith Moses, who heads the FBI’s Nashville office, told The Tennessean last month that the bureau doesn’t discuss specific allegations.
Others cash in@
While large organizations like Emerson’s aren’t the norm, other local and national entrepreneurs cash in on spreading hate and fear about Islam.
Former Tennessee State University physics professor Bill French runs the Nashville-based, for-profit Center for the Study of Political Islam. He spoke recently to a group of opponents of the Murfreesboro mosque gathered at a house in Murfreesboro.
With an American flag as a backdrop, French paced back and forth like the Church of Christ ministers he heard growing up. His message: Creeping Shariah law is undermining the very fabric of American life.
“This offends Allah,” said French, pointing to the flag on the wall. “You offend Allah.”
French, who has no formal religious education, believes Islam is not a religion. Instead, he sees Islam and its doctrine and rules – known as Shariah law – as a totalitarian ideology.
In his 45-minute speech, he outlined a kind of 10 commandments of evil – no music, no art, no rights for women – taken from his book “Sharia Law for Non-Muslims.” The speech was free, but his books, penned under the name “Bill Warner,” were for sale in the back and ranged from about $9 to $20.
When he was done, the 80 or so mosque opponents gave him a standing ovation and then began buying French’s books to hand out to their friends.
Frank Gaffney, head of the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Security Policy, earned a $288,300 salary from his charity in 2008. Gaffney was a key witness in recent hearings in the Rutherford County lawsuit filed by mosque opponents. He said he paid his own way.
On the stand, the Reagan-era deputy assistant defense secretary accused local mosque leaders of having ties to terrorism, using ties to Middle Eastern universities and politics as evidence. His main source of information was his own report on Shariah law as a threat to America, one he wrote with other self-proclaimed experts.
But, under oath, he admitted he is not an expert in Shariah law.
The list of people on the anti-Islam circuit goes on. IRS filings from 2008 show that Robert Spencer, who runs the Jihadwatch.org blog, earned $132,537 from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative nonprofit.
Brigitte Tudor, who runs the anti-Islam groups ACT! For America and the American Congress for Truth, earned $152,810, while her colleague Guy Rogers collected $154,900.
Emerson’s older organization collects several times that in an average year.
Emerson incorporated his for-profit company, SAE Productions, in Delaware in 1995. He launched the nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation in Washington in 2006.
But he doesn’t make that distinction on his website, www.investigativeproject.org, which describes the Investigative Project on Terrorism as “a non-profit research group founded by Steven Emerson in 1995.” And today, the two groups share the same Washington street address, which is published on Emerson’s personal website.
In 2002 and 2003, despite lacking nonprofit status, Emerson received a total of $600,000 in grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation, a conservative public-policy shaper based in Connecticut. The foundation declined to comment on the grants but said it gives money only to tax-exempt charitable groups.
Giving money to a for-profit is extremely rare for foundations, said Peter Bird, president of the Nashville-based Frist Foundation. It can happen only when the foundation keeps meticulous records on how the money was spent by the group that received it.
“It almost never happens,” he said.
Locker, a former USA TODAY national security editor now working for SAE Productions, said his organization does not discuss funding.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation’s application for tax-exempt status stated that all the money raised by the charity would go to a nonprofit subcontractor with no ties to Emerson or any board members. The application also said the charity would buy no services from board members. Emerson ended up being the only board member.
In a letter dated Dec. 8, 2006, the IRS asked if there would be any ties between the subcontractor and the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation. On Dec. 29, 2006, Emerson wrote back: “There are and will be no financial/business transactions between officers, board members or relatives of the aforementioned and applicant organization.”
In 2008, however, the charity paid $3,390,000 to SAE Productions for “management services.” Emerson is SAE’s sole officer.
Because of its unusual arrangement with Emerson’s company, the Investigative Project’s tax returns show no details, such as salaries of staff.
Locker said the approach was vetted by the group’s lawyers and is legal. He said that Emerson takes no profits from SAE Productions and therefore the Investigative Project is a nonprofit.
That doesn’t fly, said Charity Navigator’s Berger. Berger said tax-exempt nonprofits must be transparent and disclose how they spend money and how much they pay their staff. Emerson’s group appears to be trying to skirt these rules, he said.
“It really undermines the trust in nonprofits,” he said. “This is really off the grid.”
The Frist Foundation’s Bird said the discrepancy between the Investigative Project’s application to the IRS and its practices is troubling.
“It looks like they told the government one thing and did another,” he said.