Charles Brewer, the former U.S. attorney for the western district of North Carolina, said yesterday that the Justice Department fired him because he pushed for an aggressive probe of the PTL ministry over objections of some department officials.
Brewer, 38, whose four-year appointment has long expired, said he was repeatedly told he would stay on the job until his designated successor, Tom Ashcraft, chief legislative assistant to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), was confirmed by the Senate.
But after repeated clashes with his Justice Department superiors over the PTL probe, Brewer said, his job was declared a "technical vacancy" and Ashcraft was installed Monday as acting U.S. attorney. Ashcraft was nominated for the post six months ago by President Reagan.
"In my opinion, my early removal resulted from my early efforts to push the PTL investigation," Brewer said in a telephone interview yesterday. Senior Justice Department officials, he said, "were presented with the specter of someone who was determined to have an investigation that maybe they didn't want to have . . . Never before have I been told not to investigate something."
Brewer said he was fired by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and that his dismissal came after he had warned senior department officials that Meese should stay out of the PTL probe because there was a possible link to the Wedtech Corp., the Bronx-based defense contractor whose ties to Meese and other federal officials are the subject of several investigations.
A Justice Department spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday. Justice officials told the Associated Press that Brewer's ouster was not linked to the PTL probe, but did not explain why he was removed earlier than expected.
The embattled ministry is currently under scrutiny for possible violations of federal laws against mail and wire fraud that prohibit raising money on a pretext and spending it on something else. Prosecutors have empaneled a special federal grand jury, scheduled to convene Aug. 17 in Charlotte, N.C.
Brewer's comments shed new light on an internal dispute within the Justice Department over the handling of allegations of tax fraud and other wrongdoing at PTL during the reign of its exiled founders, televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Brewer, confirming comments he made to Charlotte station WSOC-TV, said he called Justice officials in Washington in early May "to let them know of my interest in the PTL investigation." This was two months after the Bakkers had resigned from the $129-million-a-year ministry amid a swirl of allegations.
The prosecutor said he notified Justice that he had been in touch with PTL's new management, headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and that the PTL officials were "practically demanding" an investigation into the Bakkers' use of ministry funds.
Deputy Attorney General Arnold I. Burns summoned Brewer to Washington for a meeting with officials from the Tax Division, Criminal Division and its fraud section. Also attending was Vinton D. Lide, U.S. attorney in Columbia, S.C.
According to Brewer, Lide argued that no criminal probe should begin until a longstanding civil tax audit of PTL was finished, which Brewer said "could have taken months and perhaps years." Lide also expressed concern about the First Amendment rights of ministry leaders and said he "wants to walk on this case very gingerly," according to Brewer. Lide could not be reached yesterday.
The Tax Division supported Lide's view, Brewer said, while fraud section investigators took Brewer's side. "I was pushing for an immediate federal criminal investigation," he said.
Weeks later, after Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott had chaired another meeting in Washington, Trott ordered the Tax Division to head up the PTL probe, with help from Lide's office in South Carolina. Brewer said Trott told him that his Asheville, N.C., office "was to have no investigation at all."
Some federal officials criticized this decision because most of the PTL's fund raising was based in Charlotte, which would give Brewer jurisdiction over any mail or wire fraud offenses. The Asheville office is also much bigger than Lide's office in Columbia.
After the criticism, Brewer said, Trott reconsidered and included the North Carolina office in the probe in a secondary role. But he said Trott began to mention that Brewer would not be around much longer in any event.
Soon afterward, Brewer said, he was told that Meese was declaring his job a "technical vacancy," although he had already served more than 18 months beyond his term, which expired in late 1985. It is not unusual for federal prosecutors to remain in their posts after their appointments have lapsed, and Brewer said he was repeatedly told by Justice "that I would remain until a successor was confirmed."
"I've never heard the phrase 'technical vacancy,' " he said.
Another factor in his early ouster, Brewer said, may have been his warning to Trott in late May that "the PTL investigation should not be discussed with the attorney general" because of "a potential ethical conflict."
Brewer said the FBI told him it was looking into reports that PTL had donated significant sums to a New York church that had also received contributions from Wedtech. He said he relayed this information to Trott because of Meese's widely publicized ties to Wedtech.
The Bronx storefront church of the Rev. Aimee Cortese got a $50,000 gift from the ministry in 1985, according to PTL officials. Cortese, a former PTL board member, is the sister of U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), who is under investigation in the Wedtech probe.
In 1984, Cortese helped persuade former church secretary Jessica Hahn to sign a sworn "confession" denying she ever had sex with Jim Bakker, according to a 1985 transcribed interview with Hahn by her adviser, Paul Roper. In late May, the FBI was asked to check whether some Wedtech payments to Cortese may have been funneled to Hahn, but no evidence was found to link the two scandals, law enforcement sources said.
Brewer said he did not think his ouster had damaged the PTL probe, but said the subject was sensitive at Justice because "the fundamentalist Christian movement is an important Republican presidential constituency."
Brewer, an active Republican, was a county attorney and practicing lawyer in North Carolina before Helms recommended him to be U.S. attorney in 1981. He said his successor, Ashcraft, had spent less than a year in private practice before joining Helms' Senate staff.
Ashcraft's office declined comment yesterday