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A longtime friend and major campaign contributor of Mitt Romney took the blame Sunday for a politically damaging controversy about the Massachusetts governor reportedly seeking LDS Church help setting up a nationwide network of Mormons to advance his expected 2008 presidential bid.

"I'm to blame for this whole mess," Romney confidant Kem Gardner told The Salt Lake Tribune, saying characterizations of what were "innocent" discussions between the governor, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and church officials were "unfortunate."

The Boston Globe printed e-mails Sunday from a Romney political adviser, recounting a meeting with Gardner and Romney's son, Josh, about efforts to garner church support for a program to organize Mormons in support of a Romney campaign.

In the e-mails, Don Stirling, a paid consultant for Romney's political action committee, told Sheri Dew, the chief executive officer of LDS Church-owned Deseret Book Co., that church President Gordon B. Hinckley and a top lieutenant, James E. Faust, were aware of the effort and raised no objections - a claim strongly denied by the LDS Church.

The Globe reported that it had seen the e-mails prior to publishing a report Thursday describing the meeting, but the source who provided them asked that they not be quoted from directly. The newspaper said the source dropped that condition Friday.

Gardner, a commercial developer in Salt Lake City, says there were "many inaccuracies" in the story, and Stirling got carried away with his descriptions.

"We know Mitt can't use the church," he said. "Nobody wants a Mormon presidential campaign. It would kill us with the evangelical groups.

Though Romney is ranked as one of the top contenders for the GOP nomination, observers say the fact that many evangelical organizations view Mormons as cultists is his largest obstacle should he choose to run. Saddling up with the church, either in reality or in perception, could further ding his chances.

Also at issue could be the church's tax-exempt status if it is seen as supporting a candidate. The church issued a statement read Sunday in wards across America reiterating its neutrality, adding that elected officials shouldn't imply they have church support.

The Romney camp's actual effort was to use the alumni association of the church-owned Brigham Young University to help boost the potential campaign, Gardner said, adding that e-mails sent by two BYU professors on their school accounts seeking support was not part of the plan. The alumni association is a separate entity from the university.

"This is the last thing Mitt would want," Gardner said. "He was mortified to learn of the e-mails sent out from the [BYU] school of management. But there's not much more to it."

Stirling's e-mails to Dew say a church point man, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, was involved in discussions and had briefed the church's top leaders.

Gardner "said he had met prior with Elder [Jeffrey] Holland in regard to how the efforts to help Governor Romney could move forward amongst the LDS community while not creating undue heartburn," Stirling wrote in an e-mail posted by the Globe.

"According to Kem, Elder Holland has been designated/assumed the role of coordinating these matters. Elder Holland surfaced the idea of using BYU Management Society, and its locally-based organizations as a starting point to rally and organize the troops on a grass-roots level. Elder Holland subsequently surfaced the idea with Presidents Hinckley and [James] Faust, [a member of the church's First Presidency] who voiced no objections," the Globe reported the e-mail as saying.

Gardner said he never conveyed that Holland had been appointed by the church to the Romney effort.

"This is so far beyond what actually happened that Elder Holland didn't know what hit him. I'm terribly embarrassed by it," he said.

Church spokesman Dale Bills on Sunday said the church stood by its comments and "we can state unequivocally that Elder Holland has never discussed with the First Presidency the matters asserted in the Don Stirling e-mail."

The church also offered in a statement that, "It is completely erroneous to suggest that Elder Holland was either designated or assumed the role of some sort of coordinator for matters associated."

Romney's camp tried to distance itself from the Stirling e-mails, noting that Stirling is an "old and dear friend" of Romney, but he "got over-enthusiastic and overstepped his bounds."

"The Commonwealth PAC has taken appropriate action to make sure it doesn't happen again," said the statement from Commonwealth spokesman Jared Young, who also stressed the PAC understands the political neutrality of the LDS Church.

Romney, who led the successful 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was visiting Utah this weekend and may have been meeting with his son, Josh Romney, at his Salt Lake City home, though the son declined to detail his father's whereabouts.

Josh Romney - who, according to the e-mails, attended the meeting with Gardner and Stirling - told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter he would consent to an interview if it were approved by Romney's political action committee.

But Young said neither Romney nor his son likely would have time to talk to reporters before the Nov. 7 general election.

As for political ramifications of the story, veteran pollster John Zogby said Sunday the revelation so far probably doesn't carry much weight with potential voters.

"The polling that we've done indicates a very strong national consensus on separation of church and state," Zogby said. "This is seen as more of a social network than a church network. Everyone who runs for office calls upon their social network."

The Globe first reported on Thursday about a Sept. 19 meeting between Gardner, Josh Romney and Holland at the LDS Church's Salt Lake City headquarters. The Globe said the meeting was part of a discussion between the church and Romney's advisers about setting up a program called the Mutual Values and Priorities effort - a name used by Stirling in the e-mails.

Stirling, who was the managing director of marketing for the Salt Lake Olympics, also noted there had been discussions about the LDS book publishing empire assisting Romney's efforts, according to the e-mails posted by The Globe.

Stirling asked Dew whether she wanted to join in the Sept. 19 meeting, but "If you don't, I would like to at least be able to reference that we have been also exploring ways that Deseret Book might be able to help," adding, "databases/events."

Dew, in a one-line statement distributed by the church, said, "Deseret Book has done nothing to support this effort, and will do nothing to support it."

Church spokesman Michael Otterson took issue with the e-mails' accuracy in his response to The Globe this weekend.

"What you have sent me is an e-mail between two parties, quoting a third party, none of which are church representatives," Otterson said. "We have no responsibility for what others may write and what they may think."

Added Otterson, "I reiterate that the First Presidency of the church keeps a deliberate distance from party political matters for precisely these reasons - to avoid being pulled into issues in which they have no interest or responsibility. No one has been more adamant than President Hinckley on this point."


* Tribune reporter JEREMIAH STETTLER contributed to this report.