The latest chapter in Donald Trump's ongoing legal drama played out on Monday evening, as a grand jury in Georgia indicted the former president and 18 others as part of a sweeping probe of alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in the state.
While most of those indicted are lawyers or people with close connections to Trump, at least one is a faith leader: an Illinois pastor and former police chaplain charged in connection with efforts to intimidate Georgia election workers.
The indictment singles out the Rev. Stephen Cliffgard Lee, a pastor within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denomination, alleging he and 18 others "unlawfully conspired and endeavored to conduct and participate in criminal enterprise in Fulton County, Georgia, and elsewhere." Among the specific charges levied against Lee: attempting to influence witnesses and conspiring to solicit false statements and writings.
Lee's involvement revolves around his efforts to contact Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman in December 2020. Lee appeared at the election worker's door roughly two weeks after Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea "Shaye" Moss, were falsely accused by Trump of pulling fake ballots from suitcases in Georgia, with Trump suggesting they committed election fraud.
According to the indictment and Reuters' reporting, Lee knocked on Freeman's door, left and later parked his car in her driveway. Alarmed, Freeman called the police. Police body cam footage uncovered last year by Reuters shows an officer approaching Lee's car, at which point Lee identified himself as a faith leader.
"I'm a pastor, and I'm also working with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out — and also get to some truth of what's going on," Lee says in the video.
Lee acknowledged he had knocked on Freeman's door, noting he is also "prior law enforcement," saying he was a "sergeant out in California." According to Reuters, Lee served as a police officer in California and provided chaplaincy support to police officers in places such as New York City. However, an NYPD spokesperson clarified to Religion News Service on Wednesday that Lee "has not been employed as an NYPD Chaplain."
Later in the body cam video, Lee encouraged the officer to let him speak with the election worker, suggesting he and his cohorts have some "pro-bono service for her."
According to Reuters, Freeman responded to the offer in a separate body cam video.
"I'm not interested," she said. She later added: "I have a pastor."
The indictment alleges the door-knocking incident was part of a broader effort to "influence (Freeman's) testimony in an official proceeding in Fulton County, Georgia, concerning ... the November 3, 2020, presidential election in Georgia." Prosecutors allege Lee worked with Willie Lewis Floyd III, the head of Black Voices for Trump, and publicist Trevian Kutti to try to influence Freeman. Floyd and Kutti are also among those indicted.
According to the indictment, Lee contacted Floyd after Freeman rejected his offer, with Lee allegedly telling Floyd the election worker wouldn't talk to him because he was white.
Their efforts culminated a few weeks later on Jan. 4, 2021, when Kutti met with Freeman. The Chicago-based publicist, who also represented rapper and vocal Trump supporter Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, threatened Freeman with jail time unless she provided information on election fraud. The meeting was also captured on police body cam footage.
Up until at least this weekend, Lee served Living Word Lutheran Church in Orland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He preached at the church as recently as Sunday, when he delivered a sermon focused on the Book of Job.
Reached by Religion News Service on Tuesday, a representative for Living Word said Lee was working at the church in an interim capacity but is no longer the pastor. The representative declined to offer any statement regarding Lee's indictment.
Mike Behr, head of communications for the LCMS, confirmed Lee is a pastor in the denomination but described him as retired, saying, "His status is emeritus." Behr declined to discuss the indictment, citing a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations.
Freeman's daughter, Moss, testified last year before the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The committee also released Freeman's full testimony on the topic.
"I've always believed it when God says he will make your name great, but this is not the way it was supposed to be," Freeman said.
© Religion News Service