Illinois pastor charged in indictment with Trump to turn himself in Friday

CHICAGO — Orland Park-based minister the Rev. Stephen Cliffgard Lee, who was named along with 18 others in a criminal indictment that includes former President Donald Trump, is set to turn himself in to Georgia’s Fulton County Jail on Friday, according to his lawyer, David Shestokas.

Lee faces five counts including influencing witnesses, racketeering and conspiring to commit false statements. The charges, announced Aug. 14 by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center on allegations that Trump, Trump’s colleagues and some supporters attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia.

“We were pretty much astounded at his inclusion in this group,” Shestokas said, confirming his client will plead not guilty. “This case is so incredibly dangerous to the United States of America.”

The Superior Court of Fulton County announced Tuesday Lee’s bond is $75,000. Shestokas said Lee does not have the funds to pay the 10%, or $7,500, that is required by Fulton County to be released from jail.

“There is some possibility of him going into custody on Friday,” said Shestokas, who ran for Illinois Attorney General in 2022 but came in third in the Republican primary. “We don’t know that for sure yet.”

The Illinois Family Institute, a nonprofit based in Tinley Park, has set up a donation page on its website for those interested in supporting Lee’s legal bills.

“He needs a good defense,” said David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute. “The political pundits I’m listening to, both moderate and conservative … are saying that the charges that are being brought against him are garbage.”

Smith said about $3,500 was donated to the legal fund between Monday, when it was posted, and Thursday afternoon. Shestokas confirmed that while he has not been paid any money raised for Lee’s legal bills, funds will first go to cover his bond.

The indictment against Lee regards allegations about his interactions with Fulton County poll worker Ruby Freeman. Freeman “was falsely accused” of committing election crimes by many of the defendants, the indictment reads. It also alleges that in December 2020, Lee traveled to Freeman’s home, spoke to her neighbor and knocked on Freeman’s door.

The indictment states Lee made this visit “with intent to knowingly engage in misleading conduct toward Ruby Freemen, by purporting to offer her help, and with intent to influence her testimony.”

The indictment also connects Lee to several of the other defendants via phone records.

While there is video evidence of Lee knocking on Freeman’s door, Shestokas said there is no evidence a crime was committed. He said Lee has performed religious duties in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the more recent Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting.

“At this particular moment in time, moment in history, there was a crisis going on in America, going on in Georgia,” Shestokas said. “It’s not an unusual place for him to be.”

Shestokas said no one with the Fulton County district attorney’s office reached out to his client since a Kendall County judge ruled in November 2022 that they did not have enough evidence to compel Lee to testify before the grand jury.

“Pastor Lee is indicted for knocking on a couple of doors,” Shestokas says. “This goes to the heart of … free speech.”

Faithful America, a Christian social justice group, issued a statement saying the allegations alone is cause for Lee from being expelled from ordination. A petition to call for his expulsion gathered more than 18,600 online signatures between Monday and Thursday afternoon, according to its website and executive director, the Rev. Nathan Empsall.

“By participating in this misinformation and these attacks on democracy, (Lee) helped create that environment that led to those racist threats and that political violence,” Empsall said. “Jesus stands for truth and not misinformation.”

Representatives of Living Word Lutheran Church in Orland Park, where Lee has been serving, have not returned messages, nor has the case been directly mentioned in services. In an announcement during this past Sunday’s service, shared on YouTube, Lee said questions would be fully addressed during a closed congregation meeting after the service, though the purpose of the meeting was not stated.

“Just guessing you may have some questions about some things,” Lee said.

He also said he had meetings scheduled this week with people from the denomination “to cross t’s and dot i’s.”

“My main concern is for you folks here, just so you know that,” Lee told the congregation. “That’s the priority and I have confidence in that.”

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