Pastor Indicted With Trump in Georgia Asks Evangelical Supporters for Help
The Rev. Stephen C. Lee is one of the lesser-known figures indicted with former President Donald J. Trump in Fulton County, Ga., on charges of unlawfully conspiring to keep Mr. Trump in power after the 2020 election.
But on Thursday night at an evangelical church near Chicago, dozens of people held their arms aloft and prayed over Pastor Lee at a fund-raiser where he was portrayed as an American hero — and a victim of religious persecution.
“We’re going to be talking about the weaponization of government against religion,” Gary S. Franchi, Jr., a host on a conservative online news channel, declared from the pulpit at Families of Faith Ministries in Channahon, Ill., at the start of the event. “We’re going to be supporting ‘America’s chaplain,’ and religious liberty, here tonight.”
Pastor Lee, 71, is a former law enforcement officer who became a Lutheran minister and currently leads a small church in Orland Park, Ill. He says he has offered spiritual support to police officers and victims after some of the worst American tragedies of the last quarter-century, including the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and the Sept. 11 attack in New York.
His lawyer, David Shestokas, has argued that Pastor Lee was doing something similar — engaging in “pastoral activities” — when he showed up in Georgia after the 2020 election.
There, he tried to meet with Ruby Freeman, a Fulton County elections worker whom Mr. Trump and his allies had falsely accused of ballot fraud, a conspiracy theory that ricocheted around the internet. At the time, Ms. Freeman was being barraged with threats and harassment.
The indictment of Mr. Trump and 18 others on Aug. 14, and statements from Ms. Freeman, tell a different story. They place Pastor Lee at the center of efforts to pressure Ms. Freeman into falsely admitting to election fraud, raising questions about why a Midwestern clergyman was so determined to make contact with an Atlanta elections worker.
Pastor Lee has been indicted on five felony charges, including violating Georgia’s racketeering law, and has pleaded not guilty. In his presentation on Thursday night, he noted that he could face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering charge alone.
“That’s a death sentence,” he said.
Four defendants in the case have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors; the rest, including Mr. Trump, are still facing trial, perhaps some time next year.
In recent weeks, Pastor Lee’s version of what he was doing in Georgia after the election has been gaining purchase in the Illinois evangelical community, as he and Mr. Shestokas have done numerous interviews with right-wing media outlets. Thursday’s event drew roughly 200 people.
Mr. Franchi, the M.C., said falsely that the 2020 election “was stolen right out from under every single American.”
The gulf between the two narratives of Pastor Lee’s time in Georgia says much about a country fraying along political and cultural battle lines as Mr. Trump, the most prominent of the Georgia criminal defendants, ramps up his campaign for a second term and continues to push the false narrative that the previous election was rigged.
Pastor Lee, in a 2021 speech endorsing a pro-Trump candidate for Congress named Jim Marder, said that he had largely refrained from getting involved in politics for much of his career. But more recently, he said at the time, something had changed: “We’re facing the extinction of America.”
Neither he nor his lawyer has spoken at length about why he decided to travel to Georgia in December 2020. In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Shestokas said that his client did so “on his own,” and that he had not coordinated with other high-profile co-defendants like Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, or Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former Trump lawyer who amplified the false claims about Ms. Freeman.
“His presence in Georgia had to do with the kind of guy he is in terms of his history, and trying to be involved in situations where America’s in crisis and he thinks he can help,” Mr. Shestokas said of his client in the interview.
Ms. Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea Moss, were part of a team processing votes for the Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections on election night. Soon after, video footage of the pair handling ballots was posted online and shared widely among Trump supporters, who claimed falsely that it showed the two women recording bogus votes to skew the election in President Biden’s favor.
In defamation lawsuits against some of their accusers, the women, who are Black, said they were subjected to “an onslaught of violent, racist threats and harassment of all kinds.” Ms. Freeman was forced to move out of her house for weeks.
On Dec. 15, 2020, a police officer wearing a body camera recorded video of Pastor Lee in his clerical collar, sitting in a car parked near Ms. Freeman’s suburban home. The video demonstrates that the officer was on the scene because Ms. Freeman called the police after Pastor Lee knocked on her door and then lingered nearby.
In the video, Pastor Lee chats amiably with the officer.
“I’m a pastor, and I’m also with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out, OK?” he said. “And also get some truth of what’s going on.”
According to the indictment, Pastor Lee decided that Ms. Freeman was afraid to talk to him because he was a white man. So he sought out Harrison Floyd, who led a group called Black Voices for Trump.
Mr. Floyd, who was also indicted in the Georgia case, later told Reuters that “a chaplain with federal law enforcement connections” had asked him to arrange a meeting with Ms. Freeman to discuss the prospect of an “immunity deal.”
Ms. Freeman told Reuters that Mr. Floyd and Trevian Kutti, a publicist from Chicago who met with Ms. Freeman in early January and was also indicted in the case, tried to pressure her into saying that she had committed voter fraud. Ms. Kutti warned her that she would go to jail if she did not “tell everything,” Ms. Freeman said.
At the Families of Faith church on Thursday, Mr. Shestokas said that it would cost Pastor Lee $150,000 for hotel stays and flights back and forth between Chicago and Atlanta if he chose to fight the charges at trial. Mr. Shestokas’s wife went around the sanctuary taking cash from people offering financial support; other defendants in the Georgia case have also sought contributions toward their legal bills.
Larry Smith, 77, the chairman of the Republican Party in LaSalle County, Ill., said he believed Pastor Lee’s version of events. “I think he’s an honorable man and a man typical of the cloth — he wouldn’t make that up,” Mr. Smith said.
Pastor Lee, he said, “has been part of this criminalization of Trump supporters. I mean, look what they’re doing to Trump.”
After the congregants blessed Mr. Lee, a reporter asked him why — if he was in Georgia to offer spiritual support — he had been on the phone with the leader of Black Voices for Trump and a Chicago publicist.
He referred the question to Mr. Shestokas, who said, “What you’re asking is something that the state is supposed to prove. That’s their job, OK?”