The cult of Bush

By Mark Follman

Published January 19, 2005 11:07PM (EST)

The hype this week is all about the $40 million for the Bush bash -- but the St. Petersburg Times is on the trail of some creepier money mojo. "Veiled sect hails Bush, Martinez," reports Lucy Morgan, the paper's Tallahassee bureau chief.

"A mysterious committee backed by members of a secretive religious group whose members are forbidden to vote spent more than $500,000 on newspaper ads last year supporting President Bush and U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez.

"The Thanksgiving 2004 Committee raised the money from residents of 18 states, plus $377,262 from Bruce Hazell of London, England. None of the money was raised in Florida, according to a report filed with the Federal Elections Commission. The group of men who formed the committee belong to the Exclusive Brethren, a reclusive religious group with roots in England and Australia. The group includes members from Knoxville, Tenn., Omaha, Neb., and other U.S. cities."

The pro-Bush brethren, it appears, are fairly aligned with the prez in practice as well as in spirit.

"Members of the Exclusive Brethren do not vote, read newspapers, watch television or participate in the outside world, according to published reports," the Times continues. "So why would they care who gets elected in the United States? That's hard to say and members contacted by the St. Petersburg Times wouldn't say anything except to praise President Bush and say they wanted to see him re-elected.

"Steve Truan, owner of a Knoxville map store, was listed as the contact person for the group, which formed just days before the November election. He said the group likes to 'fly beneath the radar' and refused to talk about the ads, all of which were placed by a Knoxville advertising agency whose owners refused to answer questions. Calls to other members of the group were not returned.

"Hazell, reached at his London office last week, said he is a member of the Brethren. He said the reasons he donated so much money to an American election committee were complicated and offered to explain later. When a reporter called him at the appointed hour, a secretary said Hazell 'just popped out' and wouldn't be back until next week. 'He had to suddenly rush out,' she said."

According to the Times report, both the Bush and Martinez camps were downright flummoxed by the mysterious consortium, which placed ads for the candidates in papers from Florida to the New York Times.

"The president thought we had gotten rid of this kind of shadowy activity," White House spokesman Taylor Gross said. "I have never heard of this group."

Remarked Martinez spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield, "We are clueless on this one."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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