Some Southern California seniors are receiving booklets in the mail that paint a stark picture of Social Security, which is said to be in grave danger as "immoral and dishonest" politicians "squander it away, basically bankrupting it."
"Will you help President Trump - a champion for senior Americans - enact new, no-nonsense legislation that would prohibit politicians in Washington from ever reducing the amount of your Social Security check?" the booklet asks.
All you have to do is answer a handful of survey questions about legislation called the Social Security Guarantee Act to let the president and Congress know where you stand.
And send some money.
"If you can write a check today for $100, $200 or as much as $500 it would be fantastic and would help us enlist millions of others to this unprecedented cause," the booklet says.
The only thing unprecedented here is how this mailer combines Trump, Social Security, Christianity and "traditional values" to dupe people into contributing cash.
The booklets are from the Virginia-based Coalition to Guarantee Social Security, which is identified as "a project" of the Christian Seniors Assn., which is itself a division of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Since 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the Traditional Values Coalition as a hate group "based on its consistent spreading of lies about LGBT people." In recent years, the center says, the coalition "evolved to include peddling the anti-Muslim 'creeping Shariah' myth."
The booklets bear the signature of Jim Lafferty, executive director of the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security.
The coalition's website says Lafferty served as press secretary for former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who in 2009 competed on "Dancing With the Stars" and a year later was convicted of money laundering. The conviction was overturned on appeal.
"Long active in the fight to secure America's Judeo-Christian heritage, Jim is also chairman of and founder of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force, a community-based grassroots network in opposition to the expansion of radical Islam across America," the site says.
It says he sits on the board of a group called Stop the Islamization of America and serves as an advisor to "citizen groups opposed to mosque construction" in California and elsewhere.
I tried to reach the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security, but the phone number in the booklet and on the website had been disconnected.
However, I did manage to reach Louis P. Sheldon, the controversial former Presbyterian minister (now Anglican priest) who founded the Traditional Values Coalition in 1980. He told me the organization currently is run by his daughter, Andrea, who is Lafferty's wife.
Sheldon, 84, an Anaheim resident, said he had no knowledge of the booklet and no recent dealings with his daughter or her husband.
"I think they're trying to steal our glory," he said.
That is perhaps an apt metaphor.
The booklet says prominently that every dollar sent to the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security "WILL BE USED WISELY!" But the fine print tells a different story.
It says "all contributions are combined to help pay Traditional Values Coalition expenses, which are necessary before Traditional Values Coalition may engage in its other important activities."
The coalition's 2015 tax return, the most recent available, says the organization received $1.7 million in revenue that year, almost all from contributions.
Meanwhile, it incurred $2.3 million in expenses, including more than $875,000 paid to outside firms for direct marketing and fundraising, and $208,000 in employee compensation.
The Traditional Values Coalition reported an annual loss of more than $650,000.
I don't want to rush to judgment, but it might appear to some that any money donated to the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security will be consumed by the Traditional Values Coalition.
I managed to reach Lafferty on his cellphone.
He said he wasn't familiar with that fine print about the Traditional Values Coalition, which is run by his wife, having first dibs on any donations to the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security, which he runs.
"Most of the letter is written by someone else," Lafferty acknowledged, although "it probably is true" that all donations to his group are channeled through the Traditional Values Coalition.
He was unable to say how much of every dollar donated in fact makes it to the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security.
He also was unable to comment on how the Traditional Values Coalition and its affiliated organizations stay afloat when they spend more than they take in.
The booklet from the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security urges passage of the Social Security Guarantee Act, which it says would ensure that anyone 50 or older would receive in benefits at least as much as they paid into the program - that is, Congress couldn't reduce their monthly payments.
One small problem: There is no Social Security Guarantee Act.
Legislation bearing that name was introduced in 2016 by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), but it went nowhere. The bill had no co-sponsors.
A spokeswoman for Jones said he hasn't introduced any followup legislation.
This raises questions, to say the least, about the Coalition to Guarantee Social Security soliciting funds for what it says is "the NEW Social Security Guarantee Act being proposed to the U.S. Congress."
It says the poll included in the booklet is intended "to help President Trump pass the new Social Security Guarantee Act."
"Will you make a contribution to help us fund this critical nationwide Straw Poll project to provide Members of Congress, President Trump and his top advisers with a tidal wave of hard evidence that the majority of Americans want the Social Security Guarantee Act passed quickly?"
Lafferty told me that although there is no bill pending in Congress called the Social Security Guarantee Act, his group has written draft legislation that it hopes to one day share with a lawmaker.
"It's a bill we want proposed," he said. "It's a bill we would like to see passed."
I pointed out that some readers of his booklet could be misled by language referring to a "NEW Social Security Guarantee Act being proposed to Congress." They might interpret that as indicating such a bill actually exists.
Lafferty replied that the bill does exist, in draft form, in his office, so the booklet is correct.
"You and I disagree that something becomes legislation only when it is introduced by a member of Congress," he said.
Social Security isn't going bankrupt, but it is struggling to accommodate millions of baby boomers. Unless lawmakers raise taxes for the program - perhaps by eliminating the earnings cap that limits contributions by the wealthy - benefit cuts may be inevitable.
This is a serious matter, worthy of serious discussion.
What doesn't help is a dodgy group like Lafferty's spooking nervous seniors with dubious claims.
"Passing the new Social Security Guarantee Act being proposed to the U.S. Congress would save your benefits from the budget ax," his booklet says. "So please ... write a check for the most generous donation you possibly can."
And tell your friends not to either.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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