In his parliamentary office two weeks ago, Mr Howard met Sydney pump salesman Mark Mackenzie, whose former company, Willmac, funnelled $370,000 into pro-Howard advertising at the last election.
Willmac's spending was later investigated by the Australian Electoral Commission's disclosure arm, and then referred to the Australian Federal Police for a criminal investigation, which is continuing.
Also at the August 8 meeting were the secretive sect's world leader, or "Elect Vessel", Bruce D. Hales, his brother Stephen and elder Warwick John.
A Brethren spokesman confirmed to The Age yesterday that the meeting had taken place, but emphatically denied they had asked for Mr Howard's help on the police investigation or offered him support for his campaign against Maxine McKew in Bennelong.
Mr Howard's office said only that he had met members of the Brethren, as he did with a "wide range of groups", and would "continue to do so".
The Brethren spokesman said the elders had "assured the Prime Minister that they were praying for him".
"There was absolutely no dialogue concerning Willmac, just as there was no discussion about … Bennelong," he said.
"The members of the church primarily assured Prime Minister Howard that they were praying for him, as the leader of the Government, and then went on to discuss the economy.
"This was a last-minute opportunity that presented itself. There was no agenda or pre-arranged discussion topics, simply an opportunity to greet Prime Minister Howard.
"These mysterious campaign plans being suggested are wild speculation and the reality is they aren't there."
The spokesman also said that the Brethren's private schools, which benefit from millions of dollars of federal funding, were not discussed, nor was the Government's policy to exclude unions from Brethren workplaces.
The spokesman added that, in the context of Mr Howard and Kevin Rudd addressing Christians across Australia the following day, "the particular meeting with the Brethren church group seems very unremarkable".
The Age believes the Brethren are likely to be substantial donors to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to this year's election, and that some donations will help fund the Bennelong campaign.
Stephen Hales ran the Brethren's pro-Howard drive in Bennelong at the last election, authorising a number of the group's controversial print advertisements using the address of the Brethren school and helping find Brethren members to campaign for Mr Howard.
One Greens campaigner in Bennelong, Matthew Henderson, told The Age the sect was already working on Mr Howard's campaign. At the Prime Minister's recent walk-through at the Eastwood Plaza shopping centre in his electorate, "there were a bunch of people I went to school with … I recognise them as Brethren — and they appeared to be more than familiar with the Liberal Party supporters' group".
Greens senator Bob Brown said yesterday that Mr Howard should reveal the "full nature of not just these discussions but his whole ongoing relationship with the murkily mysterious Mr Hales and the Exclusive Brethren".
"I am concerned that the Prime Minister should be so guileless and desperate that the access to potential money from this cashed-up sect should be so important him," he said.