SALT LAKE CITY — A lobbyist group for nontheists and a gay rights organization have requested an investigation by the U.S. State and Justice departments into the way LDS Church missionaries obtained some visas. But those close to the congressional process called any impropriety far-fetched.
Leaders of the Secular Coalition of America and Rights Equal Rights hand-delivered a request-for-investigation letter this week to the offices of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The letter alleges favors may have been procured from a foreign government by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Ralph Hardy Jr., an attorney who then served as an Area Seventy for the church and has been a church lobbyist, and former Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon. Specifically, the letter raises questions about why an ambassador to the United States from India said he would help the church secure 200 visas for LDS missionaries to his country.
The letter was signed by Larry Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition of America, and Fred Karger, president of Rights Human Rights.
"I thought it was important for us to put our name to a letter that would look a little bit more closely at what the LDS Church was doing," Decker said. "We're not in the business of attacking religions," he said. "There are a lot of people who would say that this is an attack on the church. It's not on attack on people's faith. It's wanting to make sure we're getting to the bottom and making sure money's being spent appropriately and legally in this country."
LDS Church officials did not immediately provide a comment on the letter.
A former Senate staffer familiar with the visa process in Washington called Decker's and Karger's charges far-fetched.
"I can't imagine there's a scenario where they're purchasing visas to India," said Boyd Matheson, who served as chief of staff for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "I just don't see that as the model. The church has a long history of working with the State Department going through the front door, not the back door."
Matheson, now president of the Sutherland Institute, said members of Congress regularly help people by contacting ambassadors of foreign countries for help cutting through red tape. Examples include people who need a visa quickly for a business or family emergency, or when a family that has done everything right to adopt a child overseas suddenly experiences a bureaucratic snag.
"It's building relationships with key people, knowing how to move the gears," Matheson said.
The letter focused on a 2009 video of a briefing that Hardy and Smith gave LDS Church leaders. The video was leaked in October 2016, posted on YouTube by Ryan McKnight, who subsequently has become the founder of MormonLeaks.
In the video, Smith, who is LDS and had lost his bid for re-election in 2008, tells church leaders about how he had secured 200 visas for Mormon missionaries from the Indian ambassador to the United States.
"We're just looking for transparency, frankly," Decker said.
MormonLeaks' McKnight and Karger, who launched his own Mormon Tips in January, have said they are driven in part by a desire for more transparency about LDS Church funds.
Decker said he and Karger consulted with attorneys. He declined to speculate whether Tillerson or Sessions would launch an investigation. In fact, the letter asked Sessions to recuse himself because Sessions and Smith served together in the Senate.
The letter suggests that the actions of Smith, Hardy and the church were a violation of the federal Logan Act, which the letter says forbids citizens from conferring with foreign governments against the interests of the United States.
The letter also suggests that the video hints at a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it a crime to bribe or otherwise make payments to foreign officials to obtain or retain business.
The video does not include any statements or information backing up such a claim, but the letter asks Tillerson and Sessions to launch an investigation.
Michael Kennedy, a former chief of staff for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, dismissed the idea.
"I find it laughable to believe anyone would allege there were any payments going on," Kennedy said, "especially any illicit payments between a senator and any ambassador. I'd say that about any senator. There is rigorous oversight of those dealings."
Kennedy said constituent services are a primary responsibility that bring senators into regular contact with officials of other governments, including ambassadors.
"That's an absolutely normal course of action for any elected official in Congress," he said.
The Secular Coalition of America lobbies government officials in Washington, D.C., for 19 secular member organizations across the country. Its stated goal is "to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all."
Karger and Rights Human Rights are long-standing opponents of the church. Karger filed a complaint against the church for a campaign-finance reporting error during the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign in California. He said one reason he ran for president in 2012 was to try to undermine Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
Karger did not immediately return a message left on Friday afternoon.