Investigative reports question whether ex-Operation Underground Railroad CEO misled donors

Sep 22, 2023, 9:50 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — The anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad and its founder and former CEO Tim Ballard may have misled donors for years about purported “rescue” missions, according to investigative documents obtained from a local and federal investigation by KSL.com on Friday.

Ballard, whose experience as a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security was the inspiration for the recent hit film “Sound of Freedom,” has often touted the group’s dangerous overseas missions to rescue trafficked children. Operation Underground Railroad’s website claims it has been involved in more than 4,000 operations and over 6,500 arrests.

While the group was involved in at least one successful operation in Colombia in 2014, some former Operation Underground Railroad staffers allege in the reports that the group is rarely involved in actual rescues, and say that could lead to donors and the public being misled about what the group does.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings began investigating Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad more than 2½ years ago in partnership with the FBI, but Rawlings closed the investigation in May.

KSL.com obtained 75 pages of documents from the Davis County investigation through a public records request to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. In addition to allegations of misleading donors, the documents also confirm earlier reporting from Vice News that video footage captured a member of the organization’s undercover team inappropriately touching a trafficking victim who Davis County investigators concluded was underage. The documents also indicate that the organization used a psychic to help gather intelligence.

Exaggerated claims?

One former employee, development director Cherstyn Stockwell, who left the organization in 2019, told investigators that Operation Underground Railroad is a “pass-through organization” that would donate money to other groups that were actually doing the work, according to an interview transcript.

“Cherstyn said OUR is simply a pass-through organization, not really doing the rescues, not really doing the aftercare, just funding it all but does not tell the donors that. … They wanted to promote that OUR was doing the rescues and all the work,” Bryan Purdy, an agent with the Davis County Attorney’s Office, wrote in an August 2021 report describing the interview.

“Cherstyn said everyone internally knows that they don’t rescue anyone anymore, but the public thinks that OUR is actively rescuing children,” the report states.

She told investigators, “That’s just not true,” according to the report.

Stockwell also told investigators that higher-ups within the company never provided documentation she requested to corroborate the number of children Operation Underground Railroad had publicly claimed to have rescued, the report says.

David Lopez, a former Navy SEAL who was part of the Colombia rescue, contracted with Operation Underground Railroad to run operations in Haiti several years later. He told investigators the organization had changed and was no longer focused on rescue operations, although that was still the image it projected, according to another follow-up report by Purdy.

Lopez told investigators he became frustrated with the “massive dishonesty,” but when he brought it up with Ballard, Ballard allegedly “responded with something to the effect of, ‘Well, how would they find out?'” according to the report.

“Dave said OUR was most scared about people finding out the way they were actually doing operations because their narrative doesn’t match that,” the report states. “He said they shifted from all the operations where they go in and work the cases and build out a real case to be prosecuted and it went away and it became more of a ‘throw some money at law enforcement agencies and throw the numbers up on a board.'”

An email included in the investigative documents from Operation Underground Railroad domestic coordinator Carlos Rodriguez sent to Ballard and other organization leaders on Oct. 8, 2020, addresses several alleged discrepancies with a videotaped interview Ballard gave.

“This video has many problems: Tim talks about every time he comes home from an operation. Does he run operations right now. This can be attacked,” Rodriguez wrote. “I don’t believe this to be true statement. There are times when Tim said we are working, we solve it. WE don’t do the actual work.”

The documents also include editing notes for the Operation Underground Railroad documentary film “Triple Take,” sent by president of operations Jonathan Lines in April 2020. The film documents the group’s 2014 rescue in Colombia.

Lines mentions several edits of videos of Navy SEALs training with firearms, saying, “That cannot be part of our messaging. We do not carry or shoot weapons. We can’t even train our partners in firearms,” according to the investigative documents.

The notes also downplay the role of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in the film.

“Sean Reyes sure gets a lot screen time for only showing up to play a bodyguard for a day,” Lines writes. “I’d suggest shortening some (of) his diatribes throughout. Once again, for the past few years I’ve warded off many complaints about Sean’s involvement with us. This film will spark new flame with his many detractors for sure.”

Groping allegations

Investigators also describe video footage of an undercover agent for Operation Underground Railroad who allegedly groped the breasts of a girl while in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for the filming of “The Abolitionist” movie and television series, according to another report from Purdy titled “Supplemental Report Cabo San Lucas Op.”

“During this portion of video reviewed there was an incident between (him) and an underage female approximately 16 years old,” the report states.

According to a transcript of a phone call between the agent and another Operation Underground employee, the agent said the owner of the strip club who presented the minors to the undercover agents grabbed the agent’s hands and placed them on the girl.

A description of the video in Purdy’s report describes the touching but does not mention the agent’s hands being forced on the girl.

Psychic sources

Rawlings also noted in an email included in the investigative documents that some of the “intel” Ballard relied on to search for missing children came through a paid psychic who apparently claims to get information from the ancient Book of Mormon prophet Nephi.

He emailed what appears to be a recording of a psychic reading by Janet Russon to the Utah Attorney General’s Office on Feb. 9, during which she provided “purported Nephi’s (via Janet) counsel to Tim on the organizational structure of OUR.”

“What do you think donors would/will do upon learning that deceased ancient Book of Mormon prophet Nephi actually runs OUR via Janet Russon to Tim and Katherine Ballard?” the Davis County attorney wrote.

Other allegations against Ballard

After Ballard told Sean Spicer he was considering running for Mitt Romney’s Senate seat in 2024, Vice News published an article containing a rare public rebuke of Ballard from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tim Ballard had allegedly claimed his work with Operation Underground Railroad was endorsed by President M. Russell Ballard, the acting president of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The statement from the church said the two men had been friends, but “once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable, President Ballard withdrew his association.”

Though the two men share the same last name, they are not related.

According to a separate Vice article published on Tuesday, Tim Ballard’s departure from Operation Underground Railroad on June 22 followed an investigation into sexual misconduct claims against him involving seven women. While with the organization, Vice reported that he allegedly asked women to act as his “wife” on undercover missions and “would then allegedly coerce those women into sharing a bed or showering together, claiming that it was necessary to fool traffickers.”

Tim Ballard forcefully denied the sexual allegations, calling them “baseless inventions designed to destroy me and the movement we have built,” in a statement to KSL.com, through the anti-trafficking organization SPEAR Fund, where he has served as a senior adviser since leaving Operation Underground Railroad.

“During my time at OUR, I designed strict guidelines for myself and our operators in the field,” he said. “Sexual contact was prohibited, and I led by example. Given our meticulous attention to this issue, any suggestion of inappropriate sexual contact is categorically false.”

Operation Underground Railroad responded to a request for comment on the allegations Tuesday, noting that Ballard left the organization on June 22 and “has permanently separated from OUR.”

“OUR is dedicated to combating sexual abuse and does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination by anyone in its organization,” the group said in a statement to KSL.com. “OUR retained an independent law firm to conduct a comprehensive investigation of all relevant allegations, and OUR continues to assess and improve the governance of the organization and protocols for its operations.

“To preserve the integrity of its investigation and to protect the privacy of all persons involved, OUR will not make any further public comment at this time,” the statement continued.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday called the allegations “incredibly disturbing” and “unconscionable” if true. He also said he had independently confirmed the authenticity of the church’s statement against Ballard with church officials.

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Investigative reports question whether ex-Operation Underground Railroad CEO misled donors