By Hanna Rosin
Rutherford Institute officials say a sharp drop in donations over the last several months has forced them to lay off seven of the center's 60 employees, close down its Washington office and dip into a reserve fund to finance its operations.
The letter, a personal plea signed by president John Whitehead's wife, Carol, attributes the institute's financial straits to its unpopular decision to defend Jones's now-dismissed sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. Many supporters were angered by the institute's decision to take on such a politically charged case, the letter explains, and as a result stopped giving to the group altogether.
"Over the past several months, giving to The Rutherford Institute has steadily decreased," the letter says. "Operations and programs have been scaled back and cuts were made everywhere. There simply isn't anything else that can be eliminated."
Despite the Jones lawsuit's effect on donations, however, institute officials say they will continue to support her appeal.
The fund-raising letter comes after a year of increasing tensions with core allies over John Whitehead's eclectic ideology and his recent positions on controversial issues. In January, Whitehead angered many religious supporters when he publicly criticized evangelicals as being wrongheaded in their rejection of gays.
But Whitehead's problems started when he took on the Jones case last October.
He budgeted around $200,000 to cover costs but the legal bills alone came to twice that amount. Whitehead hoped publicity from the case would make up the gap, but instead the opposite happened.
Whitehead said yesterday that, after taking on the case, he faced a stack of letters, three feet high, from angry supporters refusing to renew their pledges. Some did not want the institute to be involved in what they saw as a political matter; others were upset by the sexual nature of the case.
But most letters, he recalled, expressed support for the president. "There's a misconception that so-called conservatives are automatically against the president," said Whitehead. "And those of us who relied on that idea in this case to raise money were proven very wrong."
Efforts to reach new supporters have also failed. A telemarketing campaign focusing on the Jones case prompted such negative reactions that it had to be shut down in two days. Meanwhile, Paula Jones established her own legal defense fund and began competing through direct mail for the same donors.
In the urgent letter sent out in recent days to supporters, the institute claims to have ended the fiscal year $1.5 million in debt. However, Whitehead later clarified that the institute was not in debt, but merely expected to fall $1.5 million short of its expected $5.2 million in expenses in the next fiscal year.
Whitehead said he expects to spend no more than $25,000 appealing a judge's decision to dismiss the Jones case.
Whitehead's conflict with conservative Christian groups began after a profile was published in The Washington Post in January. In that article, Whitehead repudiated his own formerly harsh views on homosexuality, and said evangelicals were "out to lunch" on the subject. He also said he was representing a 14-year-old boy who was kicked out of a karate class because he has AIDS.
Two months later, one of the nation's largest Christian broadcasting networks canceled a religious public service program sponsored by the institute, called "Freedom Under Fire." Another network followed suit, costing Whitehead about 10 percent of his radio audience.
Alexis Crow, general counsel for the Rutherford Institute, sent a letter to Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council asking him to do what he could to stop the religious groups' campaign against Rutherford.
"We're being blackballed," said Crow of the religious groups. "They just won't accept anyone who has views different from theirs."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company