Salt Lake City -- Governor Mitt Romney's political team has quietly consulted with leaders of the Mormon Church to map out plans for a nationwide network of Mormon supporters to help Romney capture the presidency in 2008, according to interviews and written materials reflecting plans for the initiative.
Over the past two months, Romney's political operatives and church leaders have discussed building a grass-roots political organization using alumni chapters of Brigham Young University's business school around the country. More recently, representatives of BYU, which is run by the church, and Romney's political action committee have begun soliciting help from prominent Mormons, including a well-known author suggested by the governor, to build the program, which Romney advisers dubbed Mutual Values and Priorities, or MVP.
The president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, has been made aware of the effort and expressed no opposition, the documents show, and at least one other top church official has played a more active role.
Church officials and Romney advisers downplayed the discussions. Church officials say they have a position of strict neutrality on political matters and are not supporting Romney's candidacy.
But documents indicate that Jeffrey R. Holland, one of 12 apostles who help lead the church worldwide, has handled the initiative for the Mormons and that he hosted a Sept. 19 meeting about it in his church office in Salt Lake City with Josh Romney, one of the governor's sons; Don Stirling, a paid consultant for the Commonwealth PAC, Romney's political action committee; and Kem Gardner, a prominent Salt Lake City developer who is one of Romney's biggest donors. Globe reporters observed Romney's representatives enter and leave chuch headquarters for the meeting.
Prior to the Sept. 19 meeting, Gardner had already met with Holland at least once to discuss the initiative, documents show.
Holland, a former BYU president, suggested using the alumni organization of the university's business school, the BYU Management Society, to build a network for Romney, according to the documents. Such a plan would give Romney an established infrastructure -- the alumni group has 5,500 members in about 40 US chapters -- for raising money and generating support.
Eight days later, Stirling, Spencer Zwick, a top political aide to Romney, and the governor's brother, Scott Romney, held a dinner at a private Salt Lake City club for other prominent Mormons, where they discussed the effort further. Among those invited were Steve Albrecht, associate dean of the BYU business school, the Marriott School of Management.
On Oct. 9, Albrecht and Ned Hill, the business school dean, sent an e-mail to 50 Management Society members and 100 members of the school's National Advisory Council asking them to join them in supporting Romney's potential bid for the presidency. Hill and Albrecht signed the message with their official BYU titles, sent the e-mail from a BYU e-mail address, and began the message "Dear Marriott School Friend."
"We are writing to you as a friend to see if you have any interest in helping Governor Romney by volunteering to serve as a Community or Neighborhood Chair," Hill and Albrecht wrote in the e-mail, which was reviewed by the Globe. "Governor Romney's chances for success are significantly enhanced and energized by people, such as you, who are willing to help him at the grass-roots level throughout the United States."
Anyone interested in helping Romney was asked to send a note to Albrecht at his BYU e-mail address.
Both the church and BYU, as tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations, are prohibited by federal law from advocating on behalf of a particular candidate or political party.
The church's director of media relations, Michael R. Otterson, called "nonsense" the suggestion that church leaders were working to promote Romney.
"The Church goes to considerable lengths to emphasize to its members the institutional neutrality of the Church on partisan matters," Otterson wrote in an e-mail to the Globe Tuesday.
Otterson insisted Hinckley knew nothing about the effort by Romney's team to build a network of supporters.
Otterson said the Sept. 19 meeting that Holland hosted for Gardner, Stirling, and Josh Romney was merely "a handshake and a chat, literally a courtesy call."
Gardner, an acquaintance of Holland's, requested the meeting, Otterson said. "This was simply a response to an appointment requested by an old friend," he said.
But in an earlier interview Monday, Otterson said Holland held the meeting to "make sure that they were doing this properly and to inform them of the church's political neutrality." Holland expressed the view at the meeting, Otterson said, that the BYU Management Society would be a "perfectly reasonable" vehicle to help Romney.
BYU, though run by the church, is incorporated as a separate nonprofit entity. The BYU Management Society is officially part of the business school, according to Rixa Oman, the group's executive director. That means the society is subject to the same prohibition against advocacy for a particular candidate. (Some local chapters have registered separately as tax-exempt nonprofits and have the same restrictions.)
In interviews this week, Romney advisers acknowledged there have been discussions with church officials, but said they were informal and not part of a coordinated effort. The Commonwealth PAC, they said, respected the limits, set by the Internal Revenue Service and the church itself, on what the church is allowed to do politically.
Stirling, in an interview, initially said the Mormon Church had "absolutely no connection whatsoever" with the MVP program. But when asked about the Sept. 19 meeting with Holland and pressed about church leaders' involvement with the initiative, Stirling acknowledged the discussions but downplayed their significance.
Like Otterson, Stirling said that discussions with church leaders have focused on making sure the MVP effort did not run afoul of rules against political activism. He acknowledged, however, that the e-mail from the BYU deans was part of the MVP initiative.
Albrecht, in an interview this week, said he and Hill sent the e-mail after Gardner asked him to reach out to friends on Romney's behalf. Albrecht said that he should not have sent it in his capacity as a BYU dean.
"It wasn't something BYU did, it wasn't something I probably should have done, and it was bad judgment," Albrecht said.
Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU, said Albrecht and Hill's e-mail "did not have the university approval." She said BYU's general counsel told Albrecht to halt his activities last week after learning about the e-mail from a recipient.
As a result, Albrecht said none of the responses he and Hill have received back has been forwarded to Romney's political team. "Any response I get I am just printing them out and putting them in a pile," he said.
The MVP effort, Stirling insisted, is designed to target more than just Mormons, and he suggested the PAC would hold similar discussions with other religious organizations interested in supporting Romney.
"Is it really something that the Latter-day Saints or the Catholic community or the Jewish community or the evangelical community could say, yeah, let's get involved? Absolutely," he said.
But when asked if Romney's team had met with the leadership of any other denomination about the MVP program, Stirling, who said he is leading the effort, said he didn't know of any.
In fact, Romney operatives, in their campaign to identify people in each state to serve as MVP leaders, appear to be focusing solely on members of the church. Documents show that at least two Latter-day Saints have already been tapped to help lead efforts in Utah and in California.
In addition, the PAC has turned to several prominent Mormon figures for help in shaping the initiative, including Sheri L. Dew, the chief executive of church-owned Deseret Book Co., a best-selling author of Mormon books, and a Romney donor.
Others approached by the PAC include Mac Christensen, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Richard Eyre, a well-known writer, former Utah gubernatorial candidate, and speaker on family issues whom Romney asked be consulted, the documents show.
While Spencer Zwick, a former deputy chief of staff in the governor's office who manages fund-raising for the Commonwealth PAC, has been a key player in shaping the effort, others involved, according to the documents, include his father, W. Craig Zwick, who is a member of the church's Seventies, a group charged with implementing church policy around the country.
The governor's brother Scott Romney, a lawyer in Michigan who is assisting the effort, also sits on the board of the George W. Romney Institute of Public Management at BYU, which was named for his father.
Romney aides declined to make the governor available last night to discuss the initiative.
Romney advisers also gave conflicting accounts of the current status of the MVP program. On Monday, Stirling described the MVP program as active and forward-looking.
"We are just looking to gather those who would be interested in helping the governor now and should he decide to move forward in the future," he said in an interview.
But on Tuesday, Spencer Zwick said the MVP initiative has been abandoned. He said the effort "never materialized into a specific program."
Zwick, asked how his description of the MVP program squared with Stirling's description and recent e-mails and meetings, said Stirling is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Commmonwealth PAC and attributed the other recent activity to ongoing efforts by Romney backers to build support for him.
The Mormon community nationwide, at 5.7 million and growing, carries tremendous potential for a Romney candidacy, in terms of both donors and political activists.
But the discussions among church officials and Romney's political operatives come just as the IRS has stepped up warnings to religious organizations to stay out of political campaigning or face sanctions.
Federal tax rules aside, the church takes pains to publicly reaffirm its own historic commitment to what it calls political neutrality, most recently in a pre-election advisory the leadership sent last week to congregations nationwide.
The discussions among Romney's nascent presidential campaign and Mormon leaders also come at a delicate time for the governor politically. By most accounts, Romney has catapulted himself into the top tier of GOP hopefuls, in part by appealing to conservatives on immigration, national security, and other leading issues.
But many conservative Christian voters view Mormonism as non-Christian, and the more Romney gains in prominence, the more he confronts questions about his relationship with the church.