State Politics

Leader of church at center of scandal attends fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Forest

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, right in white shirt, attends a fundraiser in Forest City on July 13, 2017. Also at the event was Robin Webster, left, blonde hair, who is a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC. Dozens of former members of Word of Faith Fellowship have accused the church of beating congregants.
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, right in white shirt, attends a fundraiser in Forest City on July 13, 2017. Also at the event was Robin Webster, left, blonde hair, who is a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC. Dozens of former members of Word of Faith Fellowship have accused the church of beating congregants. Contributed

A photo provided to The News & Observer shows Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest at a fundraiser with a leader of a western North Carolina church that’s under scrutiny after a former member who says church leaders tried to beat the “homosexual demons” out of him.

Forest, who was elected to a second term last year, is a socially conservative Republican who’s expected to run for governor in 2020.

The photo shows Forest standing in a living room with Robin Webster, a leader of Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale in Rutherford County, about 70 miles west of Charlotte. Word of Faith has come under scrutiny in recent months after 43 former members told the Associated Press that church members try to expel demons using “blasting” prayers where congregants were smacked, choked, punched and thrown to the floor.

A former member has brought attention to the church, saying that five church leaders blasted him for two hours to try to expel his “homosexual demons.” The AP also reported the church has brought people from Brazil who say they were forced to work at the church or at senior church leaders’ businesses.

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North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, right in white shirt, attends a fundraiser in Forest City, NC on July 13, 2017. Also at the event was Robin Webster, left, blonde hair, who is a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC. Dozens of former members of Word of Faith Fellowship have accused the church of beating congregants. Contributed

Webster is the daughter of church founder Jane Whaley and wife of Frank Webster, a church leader and lawyer who served as a western N.C. district attorney until he was accused of helping derail investigations into the church.

It’s unclear how much, if any, money church leaders have given to Forest. He isn’t required to file another campaign finance report until Jan. 26.

The fundraiser took place July 13 at the Forest City home of Tony and Amy Helton. An invitation called for contributions as low as $50 and as high as $2,500 for hosts.

When asked if the Websters or church founders Jane and Sam Whaley attended the event or gave money, Forest spokesman Hal Weatherman said he didn’t know.

Asked if church leaders were invited, attended or gave money, Weatherman said: “Invites were issued via the host of the event, to our campaign email list, and via our campaign Facebook page. With over 80,000 people on our Facebook distribution alone, not to mention multiple thousands of people on our email list any number of Dan Forest supporters were ‘invited’ to this event.”

“With regards to who attended the event, that information would be publicly disclosed if they ‘paid’ at the event on our financial disclosure forms kept on file as prescribed by law with the State Board of Elections,” Weatherman continued. “Our next report is due in early 2018.”

Robert Howard, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said: “If the Lieutenant Governor is taking money or secretly courting support from the leaders of this group, North Carolinians are right to be alarmed.”

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Robin Webster, second from left, with fellow ministers from Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, NC, attend a rally for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump on November 7, 2016 at Dorton Arena in Raleigh, NC. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Weatherman said that Forest doesn’t condone the alleged “blasting” prayers. Asked if Forest is concerned about the allegations against the church, Weatherman said Forest is “concerned with the well being of all 10 million plus citizens of our great state.”

Forest was among the strongest supporters of the state’s controversial House Bill 2, which dealt with transgender bathroom access. He easily won a second term as lieutenant governor last year, garnering more votes than anyone running for state office with the exception of Republican Steve Troxler, the state’s commissioner of agriculture. Forest received more votes than President Donald Trump did in North Carolina.

Word of Faith leaders aren’t new to North Carolina politics.

Jane Whaley in 2012 gave $350 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton. In 2016, she gave $100 to Republican state Rep. David Rogers. Frank Webster gave Dalton a total of $500 between 2008 and 2012. Jane Whaley and Robin Webster also attended a rally for President Donald Trump in Raleigh last year.

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated the legal scrutiny this church faces. Five church members face criminal assault and kidnapping charges.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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