Virginia Beach councilman who opposed mosque has close links to anti-Muslim hate group

Act! for America logoA few weeks before last month’s vote on the city’s first mosque, Councilman Bill DeSteph received a 25-page PowerPoint presentation. It came from the leader of the local chapter of ACT for America, a group concerned about radical Islamists in the United States, and alleged the proposed mosque had ties to Muslim extremists.

DeSteph, the only council member to vote against the mosque on Sept. 24, later said he had information that the facility was a threat to national security, but he declined to give details. He said he passed the information to the federal government.

That PowerPoint, other correspondence obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews show that DeSteph used information from the local ACT leader to help make his decision on the mosque, and that ACT hoped he would be a political voice in Richmond for its agenda. DeSteph, a former naval intelligence officer, is running as a Republican for the 82nd District seat in the House of Delegates.

Since then, DeSteph has mostly refused to comment on the mosque, citing what he calls an “ongoing investigation.” Last month, the FBI wouldn’t comment on DeSteph’s allegations. The FBI has not responded to a request for additional comment because of the partial federal government shutdown.

This is not first time DeSteph has raised questions about mosques or Islam. In 2010, he wrote to New York City officials objecting to plans for a Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site. The letter was nearly identical to an online petition from ACT.

At the time, DeSteph was dating the daughter of the founder of the national ACT group, Brigitte Gabriel, an author and activist. Gabriel and ACT Executive Director Guy Rodgers, a former field director for the Christian Coalition and a political consultant, live in Virginia Beach.

Rodgers said DeSteph had been a supporter of the organization until about a year and a half ago. DeSteph said he is no longer a dues-paying member of ACT but still gets emails from the group.

In 2011, DeSteph questioned Virginia Beach school officials about the division’s curriculum on Islam, division correspondence showed. The inquiry came as ACT was launching a campaign questioning how Islam was being taught in public schools. No changes were made as a result of his inquiry, school officials said.

In the days leading up to the City Council vote on the mosque, DeSteph and other City Council members received numerous emails from Virginia Beach residents. They ranged from complaints about traffic to claims that the mosque would be a training ground for terrorists who could threaten military installations.

“Political correctness aside, it seems cities with mosques are the ones most likely to host hotbeds of terrorist cell groups,” one resident wrote. “This is not the Virginia Beach we want our family to live in.” Another wrote: “Why would you let our enemy build so close to our military bases? It’s time to discourage Muslims from living here.”

ACT’s local leader, Scott Saunders, wrote to the City Council to urge them to oppose the mosque. He suggested it would be tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that seeks to spread Islamic law, sometimes violently, throughout the world.

A few weeks before the vote, Saunders gave DeSteph a hard copy of a PowerPoint he’d put together, DeSteph said. The presentation, called “String Theory,” is subtitled “You’ll be amazed what you find when you start to pull the little strings.”

The presentation is a mix of public documents, Google maps and lists of Islamic groups, two of which Saunders claims are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. It suggests two trustees of the Mosque and Islamic Center of Hampton Roads in Hampton have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmed Noor, the third trustee of the mosque, has denied those claims and said the mosque has tried to keep itself far from any association with the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the trustees named by Saunders, Jamal Badawi, is a Canadian college professor, author and speaker. He did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. Delinda Hanley, news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, described Badawi as a “highly regarded religious scholar” who has worked to improve interfaith relations.

Crescent Community Center, the local nonprofit group planning to build the mosque, rejected the allegations in a written statement. The center’s directors said they have no direct or indirect connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and are not tied to any other mosques or individuals outside the United States.

The presentation also includes information about local businesses owned by Muslims and asks this question about U.S. Customs records showing a charcoal shipment to a local hookah shop: “Hookah charcoal or charcoal for gunpowder?”

DeSteph forwarded Saunders’ PowerPoint – a file titled “FBI Briefing Notes” – to some constituents who had emailed him about the mosque. He said he used the presentation as “just a starting point” to help him make his decision on the mosque.

In an interview, Saunders said he sent his presentation to the FBI. He said he has not heard back from the agency.

Saunders forwarded a portion of the presentation to City Council members after the vote. Councilman Glenn Davis said he researched some of the claims online and found them unconvincing. “The implications didn’t hold water,” he said.

DeSteph declined to say what he thought about String Theory or whether he passed it along to the federal government. He said of the presentation: “I wouldn’t have done what I did if I didn’t think there was something to it.”

The local chapter of ACT has rallied support for DeSteph on the campaign trail. On Sept. 16, Saunders sent DeSteph an email he’d drafted encouraging ACT members to join DeSteph going door-to-door one weekend. Saunders told the members that DeSteph had lost the support of some volunteers because of his stance on the mosque.

“Councilman DeSteph is a true ally in our cause and we need to support him,” Saunders wrote. “Indeed, if he wins election to the state legislature we will have an ally in Richmond that we can count on to champion legislation that we need to see passed in our great state…”

In an interview, DeSteph said he wouldn’t push ACT’s agenda if elected delegate. “I’m not sure what their agenda is for Richmond,” he said.

Saunders said he is pleased DeSteph voted against the mosque. “He did the right thing as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “He made the right call for America.”

Virginian-Pilot, 17 October 2013