- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

The Christian Coalition has settled a multimillion-dollar racial-discrimination lawsuit by black employees by paying about $325,000 in return for the workers' promise of permanent silence on the case.

Neither side would confirm details of the settlement, reached quietly last week, but sources involved in the negotiations said several lawsuits would be dropped by 12 current and former employees in exchange for the lump-sum payment to be distributed by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

"The matter has been resolved amicably," George Doumar, a Washington attorney who represented the employees, said yesterday. Mr. Doumar said the confidentiality agreement precluded him from making any further comment.

Roberta Combs, the Coalition's president, did not respond to numerous inquiries and telephone messages yesterday.

Robert F. Muse, one of her attorneys, responded last night, but said he would not comment on the settlement. He also refused to comment on an ongoing federal inquiry of possible fraud involving Coalition donations that became an issue in protracted legal wrangling over the lawsuits.

Mrs. Combs took over the group's presidency in December upon the resignation of founder the Rev. Pat Robertson.

The agreement came as Mrs. Combs and former employees exchanged accusations of financial irregularities and wire fraud involving a Washington gala last January to celebrate President Bush's inauguration.

In communications between attorneys, the Coalition accused one black plaintiff, who processed the organization's credit card and cash contributions, of embezzlement. No criminal charges were filed, but the Coalition fired the worker.

That worker was not included in the monetary settlement.

Separately, several other former Coalition employees have gone to the FBI with accusations that the group defrauded hundreds of donors who participated in the inaugural gala at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Candace Wheeler, Mrs. Combs' former administrative assistant, and Trent Barton, a former Coalition employee who joined the discrimination lawsuit, confirmed that an FBI special agent from Northern Virginia is inquiring about financial irregularities involving at least 400 of 2,200 donors to the Coalition's inauguration event.

"I have been contacted by the FBI, and I am cooperating with the investigation and will continue to do so," Mr. Barton, who is white, said yesterday.

The initial lawsuit accused Mrs. Combs and Coalition managers of forcing black employees to enter the organization's Capitol Hill headquarters by the back door, while whites were permitted to use the front door.

The lawsuits also accused Mrs. Combs of barring black workers from an employee lunchroom used by whites and of excluding blacks from weekly prayer meetings and periodic social events attended by white employees.

In its response to the lawsuits, the Coalition vigorously denied discrimination.

"Plaintiffs' claims are baseless and constitute nothing more than a cynical effort to embarrass and extort the Coalition," Mrs. Combs and her attorney in that matter, Michael D. Rothberg, told The Washington Times in July after U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a preliminary injunction against the Coalition to prohibit employer retaliation against the plaintiffs.

In his order, Judge Urbina dismissed "out of hand" the Coalition's arguments that it had not discriminated or retaliated against the black employees. The judge said he was issuing the preliminary injunction because he believed the plaintiffs would win their case on its merits if it went before a jury at that time.

Miss Wheeler, who resigned as Mrs. Combs' assistant April 30 and now works as legislative director for the Religious Freedom Coalition in Washington, said she was saddened by the settlement of the lawsuits.

"It is another injustice, because what these [black] women are saying is true," said Miss Wheeler, who is white. "Roberta needs to make a public apology."

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