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Church pulls strings in an attempt to muzzle a blogger critical of the leadership

The Rev. Mac BrunsonThe Rev. Mac Brunson

A blogger critical of First Baptist Church wants to know why his Web site was investigated by a police detective who is also a member of the minister’s security detail.

Thomas A. Rich also wants the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to explain what suspected crimes led Detective Robert Hinson to open the probe into his once-anonymous Web site.

Rich also wants to know why Hinson revealed his name to the church despite finding no wrongdoing. Hinson obtained a subpoena from the State Attorney’s Office requiring Google Inc. to reveal the author of the blog.

Rich’s unmasking led to an eventual trespass warning banning the longtime member and his wife from First Baptist, despite the fact that Brunson and a top church administrator conceded the blog never threatened violence.

HOW THEY FOUND HIM
In late 2008, Jacksonville Sheriff's Detective Robert Hinson opened an investigation into the identity of an anonymous blogger who had been critical of his pastor, the Rev. Mac Brunson at First Baptist Church. The blogger complains it was a conflict of interest for Hinson to investigate an incident involving his own church. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said Hinson did nothing wrong. A brief look at how events unfolded:

INITIAL REPORT

Sept. 29: The Rev. John Blount files a report citing "an ongoing Internet incident that has possible criminal overtones."

SUBPOENA ISSUED

Late September, early October: Hinson is granted a subpoena requiring Google Inc. to provide all information, including names, screen names and address, of the anonymous writer of fbcjaxwatchdog.blogspot.com.

INVESTIGATION CLOSED

Nov. 13: Finding no criminal activity, Hinson closes the investigation.

TRESPASS WARNING

Nov. 25: Having been informed by Hinson of the blogger's identity, First Baptist issues a trespass warning against Thomas Rich and his wife.


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Rich said he mailed a complaint against Hinson to the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday. It had not been received as of Wednesday afternoon.

The intelligence detective opened the criminal investigation Sept. 29 into the identity and “possible criminal overtones” of the blog, fbcjaxwatchdog.blogspot.com.

The Sheriff’s Office and church officials defended the complaint and investigation into Rich’s blog, which Hinson concluded Nov. 13.

Undersheriff Frank Mackesy said Hinson’s role posed no conflict of interest because his duties include handling possible threats against the city’s large religious institutions.

Rich said he was never contacted by Hinson. He learned of the investigation well after the church notified him Nov. 28 he had been identified as the blog’s author.

Two additional bloggers investigated by Hinson said they were also not contacted. They learned of the probe in middle or late March. Their blogs do not focus on First Baptist.

Mackesy said the three bloggers didn’t need to be contacted because Hinson uncovered nothing criminal.
“The detective hasn’t done anything wrong,” he said.

It was also proper for Hinson to provide First Baptist’s leadership with Rich’s identity despite finding no criminal evidence, Mackesy said, so it could take whatever internal action it felt necessary for its own safety.

“I’d be disappointed in the detective if [he] didn’t do it,” he said.

The Rev. John Blount, executive pastor of administration, said he contacted Hinson directly regarding increased “vitriol” on the blog about the same time mail was stolen from the Brunson home and someone was surreptitiously photographing Brunson’s wife. Also, someone had contacted vendors lined up for the church’s annual pastors’ conference and made critical remarks about Brunson to them, Blount said.

“We became concerned enough to ask law enforcement, 'Is there the ability to find out where this is coming from?’ ” Blount said.
Police reports were not filed about the mail and photos, Blount said. The Sept. 29 police report launching the investigation quotes Blount telling police only about “an ongoing Internet incident that has possible criminal overtones.”

At no time was the blogger accused of being behind the other incidents, Blount said.

Rich said he never stole mail, photographed Brunson’s wife or contacted vendors. Rich said he wonders if those issues were raised simply to obtain a subpoena to uncover the identity of a blogger critical of Brunson.

That was not the case, Blount said. In an age of church shootings and other violence, he said, they simply wanted to determine if any of the events were related.

Brunson said police have interviewed him about the photos and stolen mail. He refused to elaborate.

Rich said he launched his blog in August 2007 — more than a year after Brunson became the pastor — because he was alarmed by what he described as Brunson’s “abusive preaching,” especially during fund-raising campaigns.

The blog has included criticisms of Brunson’s $300,000 salary, his plan to open a church school, his construction of a “lavish” office suite, accepting a $307,000 land gift from church members for his home and putting his wife on the payroll.

Brunson declined to discuss his home and salary but maintained he is one of the lowest-paid mega-church pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. He said people are welcome to criticize his preaching style and ministry goals, including the school, but usually do so openly, not anonymously.

Rich’s letter from the church cited his anonymity and sharp criticism as “a violation of Scripture” and church bylaws. He said the trespass warning came after he refused to appear before a discipline committee without a representative.

But Brunson said Rich’s persistent criticism over nearly two years indicates the writer has an “obsessive compulsive problem” and is “not very stable at all,” Brunson said.

“What you’re dealing with is a sociopath,” Brunson said.

“The imbalance is him refusing to address the concerns of his congregation,” Rich said of Brunson’s comments. Rich said his blog gets about 1,000 hits a day and that he regularly hears from people who agree with his criticisms but are afraid to come forward.

“He’s been trying to convince his administration that I am some kind of a nut,” he said. “I am not a nut … and the things I have raised on the blog are valid concerns.”

Blount said he had no idea why Hinson looked into two other blogs, tiffanycroft.blogspot.com and newbbcopenforum.blogspot.com.

Mackesy would say only that Hinson was obligated to look at those blogs if he felt it could help the initial investigation.

Jacksonville resident Tiffany Croft said the aim of her blog is to be an online source of information about the accusations against the Rev. Darrell Gilyard, the former Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church pastor accused of sexual misconduct. Gilyard regularly preached at First Baptist in the early 1990s.

Croft said she also plans to file a complaint against Hinson demanding to know why her blog — which has never been anonymous — was the target of a subpoena to Google.

The Times-Union doesn’t know the identity of the third blogger, critical of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis.

The subpoena requests that Hinson submitted to the State Attorney’s Office may have listed the criminal activity the detective wanted to investigate, but those documents were destroyed after 90 days, according to the policy at the time, said Assistant State Attorney Stephen Siegel , who signed the subpoena. The actual subpoenas do not cite a reason for the request.

Rich said he will hire an attorney if necessary to get more information from the church and Sheriff’s Office and to clear his name.

“It’s hardball,” Rich said of the church’s tactics in uncovering his identity. “It’s hardball religion, is what it is.”

STORY LINK: Unmasked blogger blames First Baptist, Sheriff's Office

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