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Trial about to begin in suit alleging covert-action conspiracy. Christic Institute: political and religious fervor

The scene inside the cramped, shabby rowhouses of the Christic Institute hardly conjures up images of ``L.A. Law.'' Amid a sea of clutter, young earnest types wearing anything but three-piece suits move purposefully about their business. Posters of Karen Silkwood and other causes line the walls, not oak paneling. But then, this isn't your average high-priced law firm. With the salaries set at $15,000 a year, nobody's getting rich, but the Christic Institute may just be getting famous - or notorious, depending on your point of view.

The way the United States conducts its foreign policy is illegal and immoral, institute activists say, and they're out to ``make the system work.'' So far, they say, their plan of legal action, public education, and proposing solutions - fueled by their religious conviction - is moving forward on schedule.

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On Monday, jury selection begins for the Christics' own version of ``Contragate,'' a $17-million federal suit charging 29 men with illegally supporting the Nicaraguan contras through gun-running, drug-smuggling, and political assassination. For Christic cofounder and chief counsel Danny Sheehan, the trial is his big chance to prove a long-held theory: that these men are part of a ``secret team'' that has been conducting covert wars the world over since 1959.

To some, Mr. Sheehan is just another conspiracy nut. Ask him how the theory came to him in the first place, and his instant and only response is: ``It's what the facts show!'' Sheehan's critics say he has no solid evidence to back up his claims, that he's an Irish storyteller with a fertile imagination.

Indeed, not all the facts were straight in the original affidavit, admits a member of the institute's team of investigators. But since December 1986, when the affidavit was filed, Christic investigators and lawyers have been winnowing and refining their case.

Two facts are certain: The case has not been thrown out of court, and grass-roots support for Sheehan and the Christics has burgeoned since the suit was filed in May 1986. Even the defendants concede that Sheehan is a force to be reckoned with.

``What we've done,'' said Sheehan in an interview, ``is we've sued a whole bunch of private people who said, `We're not in the government, you don't have any right to do anything to us. The Justice Department is the only one who would have any right to do anything to us under the Neutrality Act, and they've decided they aren't going to do anything to us, so nyah nyah nyah!'

``And we said, `Oh really? You know, how do you like those apples? There's a federal racketeering act, and you're guilty of it!'''

A former colleague of Sheehan, Jerry Spence, has written that listening to him speak is like ``trying to take a drink out of a fire hose.''

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Trying to digest all the details of the ``conspiracy'' in one sitting with Sheehan is futile. And the ``declaration of plaintiffs' counsel'' reads like a Russian novel gone haywire - so many names, places, intertwining intrigues. But there are apparently lots of people who are willing to make the necessary leap of faith and believe what they're hearing, either in live Sheehan appearances or on Sheehan videos being shown at house parties around the country.

``I wish he wasn't right, but there's just so much evidence ...,'' says Rob Grocholski, a volunteer for Friends of the Christic Institute in Los Angeles.

Many Americans have felt a gnawing dissatisfaction with the government's Iran-contra investigation, says Sara Nelson, Christic's executive director and Sheehan's wife, herself a compelling speaker. The theory fills a certain void in people's psyches, she says.

``I have a lot of faith in the American people,'' Ms. Nelson continues. ``They aren't uncaring. They aren't apathetic. They aren't ignorant. But the government is giving them `surfacy' information, disinformation. They know they're not getting the straight scoop.''

By putting their case before the public, the Christics believe Americans can then make an informed decision about foreign policy alternatives. The institute has yet to develop its own public policy section, and has for now turned to liberal groups like the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for National Security Studies for guidance.

But the basic outlines of their approach are clear. ``There should be a CIA,'' says Sheehan, one that does what it was originally intended to do, ``which is to gather together the foreign intelligence data which are being gathered about the military actions and plans of groups that are absolutely opposed to democracy. I agree with that. But what they did is go off on this tangent, `Oh, let's overthrow this other government, and let's assassinate these other people.'''

Nelson has put together a ``communications alliance'' of 50 liberal organizations such as the National Organization for Women and the Unitarian Universalist Association to help get the Christic message out. And she insists that Christic outreach is much more than just the American Left preaching to itself.

Fund raising has boomed, from $800,000 in 1986 to a projected $2.3 million for this year. Two-thirds comes from individual donations, the rest from religious organizations and liberal foundations (largest donors in '87 were the Veatch Program, the Tides Foundation, and the C.S. Fund). Nothing from the KGB, the staff fund-raising director assured jokingly, responding, before he was even asked, to the by-now familiar insinuation that somehow ``the communists'' are behind this.

Still, fund raising has not kept pace with the rising budget - $3.2 million for 1988. The institute staff is now at 60 people, up from 13 at the end of 1986. Twenty staff members recently moved to Miami for the trial.

When hiring staff, Nelson explains, the religious dimension is important. ``There can't be any hostility toward people of faith or toward religious institutions,'' she says. Some of the staff belong to traditional denominations, both Christian and Jewish. Others describe themselves as ``New Age.''

Staff meetings begin with five minutes of meditation or prayer or readings. In preparation for the trial, Nelson is considering religious songs the Christic's Miami contingent can sing if confronted by hostile groups, which they expect.

Sheehan, who is a Roman Catholic, explains the religious element this way. ``It has to do with ... relinking. It has to do with environment, it has to do with feminism, it has to do with affection. It's different - it's not churchy stuff. It's not sectarian....

``The ethical principles that we're attempting to infuse into public policy are those that have been articulated by the mainstream religious organizations in the country for a hundred years.''

The institute's name comes from Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit philosopher who had a vision of a unifying ``Christic'' force in the universe. Staff members admit that the name hurts their image initially; but they say that once explained, it can warm people to their ethos.

The institute was founded in 1980 with the intent of taking on social-issue cases that could set legal precedents and therefore affect public policy. Danny Sheehan and Sara Nelson were both driving forces in the Silkwood case in their pre-Christic days.

In that case, the Kerr-McGee Corporation ultimately paid a settlement of $1.4 million to the estate of Karen Silkwood - a Kerr-McGee employee who died in a mysterious car accident after allegedly being contaminated with plutonium on the job - though no conspiracy was ever proved. The case was a landmark in the nuclear-energy debate.

With the Iran-contra case, the stakes for Christic have never been higher. If the case is completely discredited, the institute's credibility takes a beating. But if it wins even a partial victory, the institute will enhance its image of liberal legal activism.

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